Friday Happy Hour: Tacos and Tequila at El Rey

I’m done with this cold, rainy nonsense. It’s time for spring, people! I want to see more balmy temps, cool drinks, sundresses, and cherry blossoms. But most of all, I want tequila and tacos because nothing quite puts me in the spirit of warm weather quite like drinking tequila and eating tacos under the sun. So I’m sure you can imagine my feelings towards the opening of El Rey last week, Shaw’s new U Street tacqueria/beer garden. It went sort of like this (only replace “bacon and eggs” with “tequila and tacos”).

I walked into El Rey’s soft opening, having done shameful little to no homework, with a very short check list. First order of business: lots of tequila. Yeah they got that. Second: tacos. I think so. Lastly, not cold. It might have been rainy and nasty all week, but under those heat lamps you could have fooled me. Close my eyes and I’m back to undergrad, eating tacos off a truck and lounging on the sunny quad. Only this time there’s tequila.

These last few weeks may have been quintessential whiskey weather–cold, rainy, snowy–but at home I’ve only been mixing tiki drinks and sipping reposados. I guess all this wintery weather has given me a wistful nostalgia for breezy beaches and warm sun rays, and the drinks that inevitably flow in those wonderful places. And El Rey is definitely one of those places.

I started my menu tour with a Short Mexican Stiffy because my boyish sensibilities couldn’t resist. It’s a bitter little blend of reposado tequila and mezcal that makes for a great Mexican-styled take on an Old Fashioned. Short and definitely stiff, the earthy, vegetal tequila is softened just enough by the addition of agave, and highlighted by a dash of smoky mezcal (an old favorite of Friday Happy Hour).

After a good, stiff one, I’m ready for something a little smooth and easy. So I went straight for the Ensada, a smoky-sweet margarita variation with pineapple and chipotle for just enough spice to keep you coming back for another sip. After an Ensada encore, I’ve come to terms with all this weather; drinking these will be my anti rain dance until temps warm up and spring is finally here.

Now that I’ve got a drink or three in me (who’s counting, anyways?) my appetite is officially whetted; I think it’s finally taco’clock. The food menu is exactly what I need, small, cheap bites, and easy to navigate when you’re seeing double at 3 AM. Options are simple, yet delicious. Choose from confit pork shoulder, fried fish, charred skirt steak, or veggies, all piled high on a grilled tortilla. Keep a steady stream of the fish tacos coming out of the kitchen and I’ll stay all night. And don’t skip the elote, grilled corn doused with cheese, it’s drunk eats at its finest. And bonus! Your mom will be proud you’re eating your veggies (love you, mom!).

Now with a belly full of tacos and a few rounds of liquid courage, I’m ready to go for something a little more unusual, the Michelada. Think a Bloody Mary made with natty boh (and sorcery). There’s even a dash of Cholula in there. Sipping the Michelada back and forth with one of the draught beers is sinfully good. I foresee killer brunch prospects with a drink like this on the menu.

Other gems on the menu to look for are the sangrias, both red and white. Whether you go for a little vino blanco mixed with whiskey and velvet falernum (be still, mi corazón!), or try the red mixed with Mexican fernet (that’s right, Mexican fernet, ‘nuff said), you won’t go wrong. Nor will you with the deliciously herbal Huerta Urbana with mezcal, cilantro, maraschino, and a dash of genius. And don’t worry if you’re not in an imbibing mood, El Rey’s got something for you too. Sip on a Mexican coke or try the Mexican hot chocolate, it’s so good you will still be drinking it in the dead of summer. Mark my words.

No surprise, really, that the drinks are so good, with alums of Cafe Saint-Ex and the Columbia Room behind the bar. Not to mention Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton and brother Ian’s star staff from their other wildly successful ventures, American Ice, Brixton, and Satellite. All of which are conveniently located within stumbling distance of El Rey’s doors. Then again, with Dodge City and Velvet Lounge right next door, you might never even leave the block. Start your night with tacos and tequila at El Rey, continue with beer and whiskey at Dodge City, and finish up with fevered dancing at Velvet Lounge. Rinse and repeat all summer. Doesn’t sound like a bad plan at all.

Paul Allen

While having only recently relocated to DC, Paul has been a long time fan of DC’s cocktail culture. In his short career he has tended bar for GQ, Bombay Sapphire, Campari, and Nikka Whisky in London. Currently you can find him behind the stick at Firefly. When not working, he’s likely vociferously advocating for the DC Craft Bartender’s Guild or trying to brew the perfect cup of tea. Though he misses his native Rhode Island’s beaches and beautiful fall weather, Paul is proud to live, work, and–most importantly–drink in DC.


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