BY PETE TITTL
When I first tried Los Aguacates in 2004 at the restaurant's location in the southwest, I was impressed. This kitchen seemed to have a real flair for taking standard Mexican food to another level, and a homey atmosphere. After the restaurant subsequently opened a downtown location on Truxtun that didn't last, the owners are taking a second stab at expanding to the central part of town, moving to an H Street building that was most recently home to Santiago's.
Some of the good stuff is still there, though I was irked by the kitchen giving me the wrong shrimp. This second location (the one on Stine and Harris is still up and running) is pretty small, but it has a well-lit bar and also offers one of the best margaritas in town, the MVP ($10). Everyone seems to have the Cadillac margarita, but what makes this particular creation special is they don't use the kind of over-the-counter mix you find in stores, instead mixing up fresh-squeezed lime juice, Patron tequila (no cheap garbage) and the shot of Gran Marnier on the side. It was so smooth, so winning without being too potent that you will learn firsthand just how good tequila makes the difference in a drink if that particular lesson has eluded you in life so far.
My companion did successfully get what she ordered, the chicken fajitas ($11.95). The chicken breast meat used was coated with a spicy seasoning that made it orange/brown, and added just an extra bit of flavor. There were three tomato wedges mixed in with a perfect proportion of white onions and green peppers. The plain rice and soupy refried beans were on the side, and overall it was a very pleasing selection.
I wanted the shrimp en salsa verde ($14.25), which was prepared with cactus, onions and mushrooms in chile verde sauce. Why? I love cactus and jicama, though some say these vegetables add mostly texture, not flavor, to the Mexican food they use. Nonsense. I find that the prickly pear cactus used by most Mexican restaurants has a unique but subtle taste, like fresh green beans that, with peppers, makes an entree that much more interesting. I've even heard that, like almonds, it can help lower your cholesterol. I'll concede jicama can be like the tofu of the vegetable world, just picking up and carrying other flavors, but cactus with a chile verde sauce seemed to promise me an incredible adventure.
Instead, I was presented with the camarones rancheras, something that, while OK, is pretty ordinary (tomatoes, onions, bell pepper, a butter sauce). I was too discombobulated to bring it to my waitress's attention and will just have to go back at a future date to get the salsa verde version, which is one of their specialties.
I do have to mention I just love the sensible way the menu is put together. There's a half avocado in the margin for items considered to be specialties, and the particularly spicy choices have a red pepper drawing. The variety is impressive. Fish fajitas are common but they have seafood fajitas ($16.95) made with scallops, shrimp and fish. Breakfast is available until noon on weekdays.
Prices may give you pause. My companion noted the soups seemed high -- $8.75 for albondigas? Almost everything on the dinner menu is over $10, and the shrimp entrees are all over $14. You've been warned.
On the plus side, my companion's class of house chardonnay was a very generous pour in a big glass --seemed like two glasses --and the salsa here (it looks to be made with roasted peppers and/or tomatoes, with black flecks everywhere) is just marvelous. You can also buy flour tortilla chips for $1.50 a la carte, an option most restaurants don't offer.
Other menu items we can recommend are the macho burrito ($11.95, with both grilled chicken and steak), the camarones a la diabla (made special by roasted tomatoes) and la tampiquena ($15.95, like steak fajitas with ranchera sauce and bacon).
Service was OK. The crew seemed spare, so most of our service came from the bartender, who didn't have a lot of people lined up for drinks when we visited. There was that gaffe with me getting the wrong dinner, but the timing for every part of the dining experience was pretty smooth.