Really, this is all Lost Society's fault. The new steakhouse at the corner of U and 14th streets was supposed to be the suitably romantic setting for our rendezvous, but when my date arrived he realized it's not open on Mondays. We were forced to come up with a backup plan.
El Centro D.F. is just down the street, next door to my favorite music venue in town, Black Cat. My date and I had briefly discussed hitting El Centro before since I hadn't yet tried the taqueria, which veteran restaurateur Richard Sandoval (the same guy responsible for Zengo in Chinatown) opened in May. Moreover it was a beautiful, breezy night, and bars with open-air rooftops are still appealing at this point in the season.
The main dining room of El Centro is uncharacteristically spartan for a Mexican restaurant -- usually, I'd expect bright painted hues of pink, blue and yellow, but El Centro is all muted, candlelit and distressed wood. We weren't there for that room, however; we trekked upstairs.
The fact that El Centro has a rooftop is all but guaranteed to land them business during the sticky summer months, but I've been to a lot of rooftops in my day and this one is nothing to write home about. There are only a few bar stools scattered here and there instead of tables where one could eat, so the rooftop menu is EXTREMELY limited: a couple of tostadas and guacamole. For what it's trying to be -- a nicer taco joint -- it should have tables upstairs and a full menu, like how they play it on the roof of The Reef.
I understand that tables means less standing room and therefore fewer people packed in and buying drinks, but here's the thing: You can either pack people in and serve good drinks, or you put tables in and focus on the food. You don't, however, do what El Centro does, which is NEITHER.
The drinks are surprisingly disappointing! I tried both the regular Mojito and the Mojito Mexicano, the former of which was ho-hum. The latter offered a distinct spiciness -- it has chili-ginger in it -- but in both cases they were served with a standard-size straw, meaning you got mint leaves and stems in your teeth with every suck. Mojitos should be served with smaller cocktail straws so that doesn't happen.
Moreover, they should be served in better glassware. When you go to a Mexican restaurant and you start ordering cocktails, what do you expect them to be served in?
Something like this:
Right? That's what we've all come to expect for our margaritas and mojitos?
Well, at El Centro, you get them in this:
Hmm, where have I seen that before?
Wait, I know this one, don't tell me...
The final nail in El Centro's coffin for me was when I ordered the Mango Margarita. I preface this by saying I love anything mango and tend to gravitate toward those drinks when I see them on a menu.
I watched the bartender make it: She took a squeeze bottle of mango stuff from below the bar, shook it over my pint glass a few times, and when the mango concoction inside wouldn't come out, she unscrewed the lid and dumped pulpy chunks in my glass.
Oh hells no, I thought. Please tell me she's not actually going to serve me that.
But serve me she did, and it was just as much of a chunky, disgusting mess as I thought it would be. I've gotten drunk on margaritas and pissed out alcoholic beverages more appetizing than this.
In terms of the larger atmosphere, El Centro was alright, but they turned on the bar lights too early and too brightly. My date and I had started there early in the evening, when it was still full sunlight outside. The sun was just beginning to set when they lit up a string of lights above the patrons' bar stools, which made it sort of feel like we were all about to be questioned by police. Let's just say, it wasn't exactly ideal for a date.
By then, my date and I were less-than-thrilled with our surroundings and were ready to venture elsewhere. We asked for the check, which the bartender promptly retrieved.
Somewhere in there, my date happened to mention Russia House, which caught our bartender's attention. She immediately tuned into our conversation, told us she also worked at the Dupont Circle lounge several nights a week, and talked about how much more awesome it was there.
Hmm. Good call, lady. We'll be sure to go there next time.