Friday, November 12, 2010

Restaurant Review: Lupe Mexican Cantina

Continuing my survey of DC Mexican restaurants, last night I had dinner at Lupe Mexican Cantina in Dupont Circle. Next to the always busy Public Bar and the (pardon my pun) jet set Fly Lounge, Lupe offers a much more relaxed scene.

The decor is decidedly "Mexican hodge podge"...some semi-authentic rustic-looking wooden chairs, paired with benches upholstered in the prototypical "Mexican restaurant pattern" fabric, lit by more modern light fixtures. One of the defining features of the restaurant is a wall mural that I took to be a representation of "Mexican culture" (see below). The overall visual result was like someone mashed Oyamel and Cactus Cantina...some upscale elements paired with stereotypical Mexican restaurant decor.

Photo, courtesy of
The restaurant was decently busy for a Thursday evening, although we were able to sit almost immediately. The majority of the patrons were mid-twenties to early-thirties, apparently on dates. I had read disparaging reviews of Lupe's service on Urban Spoon but found both the hostess and our server to be polite without being overbearing. It wasn't memorable service--in a good way--which is ultimately what I want from a $12 a plate restaurant.

One of the first things I want to know when I go to a Mexican restaurant is--how are the margaritas? At Lupe, they're pretty darn good. Lupe's margaritas are simple...lime juice, tequila, triple sec, salt. That's it. As it should be. No cloyingly sweet sour mix. No goofy jumbo glass (just a highball, thanks). All in all, a good cocktail. And at $5 apiece during Happy Hour (M-F, 5-8pm) they're a pretty good deal too.

As an appetizer, we started with the guacamole. I was a bit surprised that the $5 option was the same size as our (very small) salsa ramekin. The size actually appropriate for two people was $8, which seemed priced a bit high to me. While guac was enjoyable, the recipe was too heavy on the onion. The tortilla chips were the perfect thickness for scooping, and not at all greasy, but didn't taste homemade either. The salsa itself had a good kick, but the consistency should have been thicker. A good start so far, but not mind blowing.

For entrees, Lupe's prices range from $8 to about $16. The full menu (minus prices) is on their website here

We had the chile relleno ($12) and the skirt steak ($15). The skirt steak was seasoned nicely, but a little overcooked and tough--considering we had ordered it medium rare. It came with an arugula side salad, which was nice although somewhat unexpected for a Mexican dish. The chile relleno, however, was definitely a must-order again! Stuffed with beef, pine nuts and raisins, and topped with sauce and cheese, it was spicy and surprisingly substantial. My only qualm was that it could use a more interesting side dish and better plating...two small chili's with a pat of (completely generic) Mexican rice and a ramekin of refried beans was not visually exciting. Maybe I just had arugula envy, but I thought another vegetable on the plate would have rounded the dish out nicely.

Lupe's has definitely worked out many of the kinks they experienced right after opening, but the quality of the food just frankly can't compete with pricier options like Oyamel, Rosa Mexicana and Cafe Atlantico. But, for inexpensive chain Mexican, they're well above Guapo's, Cactus Cantina and the like.

All in all, I think the location and the happy hour margaritas would bring me back to Lupe. The food was decent, but only the chile relleno was a must-order again for me. Near the Dupont metro and convenient to many other neighboring bars, I think this would be the perfect place to start your night or meet up with friends after work.

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Lupe Mexican Cantina on Urbanspoon

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