Restaurant Review: Fuego

Fuego turns up the heat with chilies, chocolate and other big flavors.

A decade ago, I couldn’t have imagined ranking any local Mexican restaurant as a favored dining destination. Back then, the genre often meant one-flavor-note, grease-laden combination plates, which typically centered on some form of burrito-like starch bomb. Adding flavor to the wan black beans and rice involved passing a bottle of white vinegar with something floating in it.

Times have changed. Nowadays, authentic Mexican fare can be found at any number of killer taco joints and food trucks in the area, not to mention upscale establishments. I can have a rich, chocolaty mole sauce, prepared by a pro, close to home.

That’s precisely why I’m a fan of Fuego Cocina y Tequileria or “Fire Kitchen and Tequila Bar,” a stronghold of modern Mexican cooking that opened in October in Clarendon in the former Market Tavern space. It’s the latest venture of chef/co-owner Jeff Tunks and his partners at Passion Food Hospitality—the force behind six other notable restaurants in the region, including DC Coast in the District and PassionFish in Reston. At the helm at Fuego is gifted chef de cuisine Alfredo Solis, a native of Mexico City.

Fuego’s first-level bar, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, folk-art-inspired wall décor and high-top tables, is a welcome spot for a quick bite and a tasting flight of tequilas. (It’s challenging to choose just three from the house stock of more than 100 varieties.) But if I were you, I’d take a deep breath and climb the three-level winding staircase to the handsome, 156-seat dining room. Strikingly appointed in neutral tones with crimson and gold accents, its design evokes the mid-century modern sophistication of 1950s Mexico City.

You can easily put together a terrific meal from the appetizer list alone. But the entrées, side dishes and one particular dessert are also well worth your attention.

Fuego’s cooks must be complimented for their frying arts. For starters, vegetable empanadas come to the table crisp and light, filled with the alternately crunchy and creamy textures of roasted squash, goat cheese, avocado and earthy huitlacoche (also known as “corn smut,” the fungus is considered a delicacy). More fry perfection awaits with flautas de pato—tightly rolled taquitos of luscious shredded duck and Oaxaca-style string cheese, ready for dipping in a rich, dark mole sauce.

“There’s huge flavor everywhere, that’s what I like,” said one dining mate between bites of perfect, chunky guacamole exploding with fresh lime and a Serrano pepper kick.

With tradition in mind, the corn tortillas for the tacos are made in-house. Some of the fillings are extraordinary, although I’ll take a pass on the chorizo sausage, which goes down haltingly with an arid thud. The far better choices are the birria taco, brimming with mild, tender and lean slow-roasted goat meat, or the braised lengua, composed of tender beef tongue with habanero salsa. I’m also partial to the Mexico City classic al pastor taco of moist, spit-roasted pork and pineapple salsa. All come with a trio of pepper-laced sauces for added zing.   

A great accompaniment to the spicy tacos is the palate-refreshing Caesar salad of whole baby romaine lettuce leaves, cubes of Cotija (a firm, aged cow’s milk cheese), mild whole anchovies and an herb-laced tangy vinaigrette. Such a pairing is historically fitting as well; it’s said that the salad was first created in 1924 in Tijuana, Mexico, by Caesar Cardini, an Italian American chef.

Service swings from informed and friendly (a trademark of Tunks’ restaurants) to rushed and overbearing, with a heavy dollop of up-sell thrown in. One evening, not two seconds after our group was seated, a server loomed, belting out: “Can I start you out with a bottle of bubbling water and two of our most popular appetizers as you look over the menu?” My answer (a firm no) didn’t stop him from returning two more times, within minutes, ready to write something down. And please, don’t ask me if I’m finished with a dish when forks are still in motion. I know you want to turn the table.

Entrées, such as the flavor-packed and juicy skirt steak, topped with a peppery prickly pear salsa, are generous enough for sharing. Another favorite is the slow-simmered and straightforward carnitas pork dish, which wins praises for its depth of porcine goodness rather than spices. And I can’t remember when I’ve had a more succulent chicken breast, here perfectly marinated and grilled, served with a green mole sauce, adjusted for pleasant heat.

Sides are surprisingly sensational—from the yummy fried yucca, down the list to the sweet glazed plantains. Every one a winner.

The desserts are hit or miss (the latter verdict directed at a musty rice pudding and a lime-and-coconut tart with little flavor). But for a perfect ending, satisfy your sweet tooth with the simple-sounding Mexican flan. Out will come an appealing mound of chocolate sponge cake and baked custard, covered in an earthy Mexican chocolate sauce. A spot-on finish—worth climbing every stair.

Fuego Cocina y Tequileria

2800 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, 571-970-2180,

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday through Wednesday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Sunday 5:30 to 9 p.m.

Brunch: appetizers $8 to $13; entrées $12 to $19.
Dinner: appetizers $7 to $13; entrées $15 to $24.

Suggested Thursday through Sunday

Bar and Cellar
In addition to specialty cocktails made with tequila (more than 100 tequilas are in stock) and a small selection of U.S. and Mexican beers, Fuego serves more than 50 wines by the bottle, most of which are available by the glass. The list is rich with varietals from boutique West Coast wineries.

Discounted parking for up to three hours is available in the Market Common garage next door to the restaurant. Street parking is also available. The Clarendon Metro station is two blocks away.

Categories: Food & Drink