Dine Review: Good Vibrations

Gringos & Mariachis hits nearly all the right notes

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At Gringos & Mariachis, the details click. From the standout décor to the appealing Mexican tapas menu, exemplary waitstaff, and a catchy name and logo, the restaurant’s concept really comes together.

No wonder then, that even on a Tuesday night, the dining room is packed and the bar is buzzing. This hip taqueria is the “It Girl” of Bethesda.

Roberto and Riccardo Pietrobono—owners of Olazzo, the endearing Italian restaurants in Bethesda and Silver Spring—and their longtime manager Marc Miranian opened the restaurant in February, and it quickly acquired a loyal following. Olazzo chef Miguel Linares, who was born in Puebla, Mexico, oversees both kitchens.

As for the cooking at Gringos, after five visits there, I’d say it’s good but not great. While the food is fresher and more authentic than the heavy, cheese-laden fare served by the Tex-Mex competition, I did wish for more depth and spark in some of the dishes. Fans may quibble with me, but Gringos’ super setting and vibe can make it easy to overlook or forgive any culinary imperfections.

When ordering, focus on the extensive list of small plates and on the tacos that come two to an order and are made with corn tortillas 4½ inches in diameter. They’re only a few bites each, but an extra can be ordered for $3 ($2 at lunch).

Before the margaritas arrive (go for the Smokey or Jalapeno Cucumber flavors), heat seekers should order a couple of additional salsas from the list of nine alternatives. The house salsa that comes gratis with the thick tortilla chips is far too tame for my tastes (and was downright watery at lunch one day). But the Sriracha Cream (labeled “medium”) and the Tomatillo Chipotle (labeled “hot”) are more pleasing; in fact, the creaminess of the former and the smokiness of the latter create a marital match on a chip.

You can also order two salsas with guacamole, but on the night I tried the avocado dip, it was a faint version with little pizzazz.

Instead, choose the albondigas, Mexican-spiced meatballs served in a fresh-tasting pool of salsa verde, or the queso fundido, a fun starter to share. Everyone can take turns pulling the gooey, taffy-like cheese out of the dish with a chip. For a lighter alternative with a sweet note, opt for the chorizo-stuffed dates. On the OK-but not-worth-ordering-again list, I’d put the ceviche and the sopes—the masa cakes topped with refried beans, chicken tinga (shredded meat in chipotle sauce), cheese and two salsas were boring.

Although it’s difficult to go wrong when choosing any of the tacos, among the best are the seafood selections, such as the battered fish or the shrimp that come with plenty of cilantro and lively cabbage slaws. I also enjoyed the birria (slow-cooked short rib). For something different and delicious, try the multidimensional molote de huitlacoche, a flash-fried tortilla stuffed with sautéed mushrooms and huitlacoche, a Mexican delicacy that is actually a fungus that grows on corn (don’t get scared away). The whole shebang is then topped with shredded lettuce, salsa, sour cream and Cotija cheese.  

As for main courses, the three I tried were disappointing. The carne asada was cooked way beyond my request for medium rare, resulting in chewy slices of bland meat. The treatment of the lamb—marinated in pureed chilies, bay leaf, avocado and plantain leaves and then cooked sous vide-style (sealed in a plastic bag and steamed)—is supposed to render a moist outcome, but the chunks of meat were surprisingly dry. Conversely, the chicken in the mole poblano was juicy, but the mole sauce was thin and lacking in dark, rich complexity.

Many of these quibbles were overshadowed by the waitstaff, who are delightful, efficient and knowledgeable about the menu. One evening when my dining partners were substantially delayed by traffic, the waitress kept checking in on me as I waited alone. She even joked that she’d join me for a drink if she could; if she didn’t have to work, I’d gladly have invited her to sit down. On another evening, our sweet-natured server—whom I’d adopt if I didn’t have a daughter of my own—brought a sample of her favorite salsa for us to try.

Like the service, the décor is engaging. Dramatic murals on the distressed-brick and wood walls resemble tattoo art—one features a woman in a sombrero surrounded by the message “Make Tacos, Not War”; another depicts a “Day of the Dead” sugar skull, the popular symbol of the Mexican holiday. Other touches—such as gold-textured wallpaper, an antique-y liquor cabinet stuffed with tequila bottles, faux-finish wood tables, brown-leather booths and roped chandeliers—give the place a funky feel.

One warning: All this coolness comes with a lot of noise at peak times, so stop by for lunch or grab a bite early in the evening if you don’t want to keep shouting “What?” at your tablemates.

Roberto Pietrobono, who says it took about a year to plan the eatery, is confident he’s got the bona fides to expand from Italian into Mexican fare; he lived in Mexico for four years as well as in Southern California. “It’s not like we’re gringos,” he says. “We really thought this out.”

It shows.

Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor. To comment on this review, email comments@bethesdamagazine.com.

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