The Real Deal

Las Tortugas' Mexico City cuisine draws an exuberantly loyal crowd.

I suppose we are all seeking what's authentic these days. Could it be because in many aspects of modern life, trust and predictability have been tossed out the window? Or is it also that our usual way of doing just about anything changes by the minute? Possibly, a newfound awareness of what's really important has made us just a bit more selective. More people want to support what's real, what's local, and what rings true.

Now that going out to eat is more of the treat that it probably should have been all along, where we choose to dine calls for a degree of thoughtfulness in particular. To me, it feels right to support people who put their whole hearts and their deeply held beliefs into the food that they serve.

Mulling over this growing desire for authenticity on the way to Germantown's Las Tortugas, I was looking forward to my Mexico City-inspired meal and also the experience, which is personal as well as lively. If you've never been to Las Tortugas, know that eating there is an education in itself. This is not the type of establishment where you will be left to your own devices and allowed to order willy-nilly. The family behind the restaurant has a plan in place: Customers should feel not merely satisfied, but also thrilled by their meals. No matter how long the line, owner Jonathan Magallanes or his father Pepe Magallanes will answer questions, explain what is fresh, and throw in a little philosophy of food. They may even ask you a few questions, too. On both of my visits, I was lucky to snag the table right by the register where customers order — all the better to eavesdrop!

I think it's best to try one of the aguas frescas, or "fresh waters," first. As one customer remarked, you can get a Coke anywhere, so why not go for something different here? Aguas frescas are pure, fresh fruit juices with little if any added sugar; the focus is on the essence of the fruit. At a late lunch around two o'clock, a steady stream of customers lined up to order, and the daily-special prickly pear agua fresca that my friend ordered was the talk of the hour. Since it looked so unique, we got a lot of "what in the world is that?" looks and a few questions from across the room. A translucent green color, the juice was topped with two peeled prickly pears that were speared on a wooden stick. I ordered the sandia agua fresca, and it tasted like the juice from a summer watermelon at its peak. These drinks are big — 24 ounces — so one is really all you need to enjoy with your meal.

Once we ordered at the register, we quickly grabbed a table, as they were in short supply. Our queso fundido consisted of a blend of melted cheeses and chorizo, also known as spicy pork sausage, soft, steaming tortillas in foil, plus one little cup of salsa and one of pickled jalapeno. As I generally avoid the gooey cheese dips at other Mexican joints, I was skeptical, but this was different — warm and stringy in a good way. It was fun to pull off a portion of dip and wrap it in the twisted tortilla chips with a daring amount of peppers. Another great option for an appetizer or side is the elote con mayonesa y cotija, steamed corn rolled in mayonnaise and red pepper, with lime wedges on the side. Let's just say it's about the best thing one could do to plain old yellow corn. We had mentioned that we wanted to split it, and it had been thoughtfully cut in two with sticks on either end. Careful dots of a smoky, vinegary hot sauce surrounded it, making for a nice presentation.

Due to the name of the place, we had to try two Tortugas, which is slang for "tortas" in the Mexico City neighborhood where Pepe Magallanes grew up. Since these sandwiches are made with thick, white, crusty rolls that have been hollowed out to make room for the filling, they resemble turtles' shells. Both tortugas were accompanied by tortilla chips, red salsa, and salsa de aguacate tayde, an avocado-based smooth, spicy green sauce. I tried the de callo de hacha, a tortuga with grilled wild jumbo sea scallops; these were briny and flavorfully bright. My friend selected the sonora avocado tortuga, and thought that the combination of creamy avocado and salty cheese worked well. Both sandwiches were topped with spicy poblano peppers, shredded lettuce, tomato slices, queso fresco, avocados, bean spread, and mayonnaise. The crisp torta bread, browned on the outside and chewy inside, was a hit. Sometimes I think it's tough to find a solid sandwich in this city, but these were hefty enough to have alone as a meal, and they boasted some surprisingly balanced flavors.

Last, I ordered the flan raton, which is the only dessert listed on the menu. Surrounded by a clear burnt-caramel sauce and powdered sugar, the flan was full of creamy, egg-custardy goodness. (I think I spied some large powdered-sugar-dusted cookies in a jar on my way out, so if dessert is your thing, be sure to ask what else might be available.) As we ended our meal around three o'clock, Las Tortugas was still crowded with hungry people streaming in at a rapid clip. Although the line remained long, the owner patiently paid attention to each customer — explaining how aguas frescas are made, discussing the organic meat that's on the menu, and politely turning down a baseball-capped college kid's plaintive request for fajitas — while somehow managing to keep things moving along quickly.

I ordered from the same menu at dinner a couple of weeks later; however, it's a good idea to check out the daily specials board, too, since it changes depending on what's fresh. I decided to try horchata, a traditional cinnamon, almond, and rice drink, while my dining companion went for a mango agua fresca. Both were so interesting that I made a mental note to stop by again soon just to try the other flavors, cantaloupe, pineapple, and tamarind, along with the special teas and limeades that are on the menu. Soon, the guacamole verdado came our way. It was cut-straight-from-the-avocado fresh, chunky, and perfectly ripe. I didn't find the tortilla chips to be very crisp, so I just used them as vehicles for tasting even more of the guac. From the small-plates menu, we selected the molletes con pollo; this reminded me of an open-faced tortuga and was topped with a paste of smashed beans, shredded chipotle-spiced chicken, and melted cheese on a white sandwich roll. It was a comforting dish that my companion thought was the best thing she tried, hands down. Next, I wanted to see what a Las Tortugas salad would be like, so I chose the ensalada de huanchinango with red snapper; tilapia is also available. An abundance of expertly grilled fish was surrounded by thickly sliced tomatoes, shredded iceberg lettuce, slabs of queso fresco, avocado, limes, salsas, jalapenos, and more chips. It would be enough to have as an entrée for sure. We also sampled the smaller five-ounce portion of the tacos de filete mignon, filled with grilled filet mignon seared with roasted tomatoes, poblano peppers, and sweet onion wrapped up in many small, soft corn tortillas.

What struck me as entertaining (bordering on hilarious) was the amount of signage that's posted prominently at Las Tortugas. There's a voice and an attitude there that speak to the owner's experience. An overview of the main rules: Do not sit down before you order, do not inform the proprietors about your views of what Mexican food is or should be, don't rush to order, don't be in a big hurry to get your food, and don't dare leave your tray in the wrong place once you've finished your meal. This doesn't come across as off-putting due to the snappy humor that's apparent in the warnings.

Seating at Las Tortugas consists of always in-demand two-top and four-top tables and some tall chairs at a small bar area by the windows. The music is cacophonous and the conversation boisterous, so don't expect an atmosphere conducive to quiet romance.

All this said, the food is the focus at Las Tortugas. It's great that we can experience authentic Mexican food thanks to the Magallanes' efforts to educate their customers about what it really should be. It's clear that what is offered at Las Tortugas unmistakably is the real deal. 

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