Tortilla Coast Before It Was a Capitol Icon

Jason Dick
Posted November 7, 2013 at 3:37pm

Tortilla Coast might have been destined to become an icon on Capitol Hill.

Bartender Mike Cumming serves lunch and drinks back in 2002. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Bartender Mike Cumming serving lunch and drinks back in 2002. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Twenty-five years before Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, assembled conservative House firebrands in its basement to discuss shutdown strategies, Tortilla Coast opened to diners on the Senate side of the Capitol, at the location that now houses Union Pub at 201 Massachusetts Ave. NE. The reaction to the then-exotic idea of Mexican food played out in our own pages, under Thomas Head’s “Head Table column” on Nov. 6, 1988.

“Tortilla Coast, Capitol Hill’s newest Mexican restaurant, is located on the culinary map equidistant from Houston, Acapulco, and Walt Disney World,” Head wrote. His reaction to the name and decor suggested a mixed review might be coming. “Its name suggests an amalgam of John Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat” and Paul Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast.” The wall murals (by artist Nancy Baker, niece of former White House chief of staff and former Sen. Howard Baker) look as if Gauguin (or maybe Rousseau in a Polynesian period) ran out of canvas and painted on naugahyde instead,” he wrote. Heady stuff.

But Head, although stating that “lovers of hot food will be disappointed with the mildness of the seasonings at Tortilla Coast,” comes around, particularly when it comes to the booze: “The margaritas, available frozen or on the rocks, are very good, pleasantly tart and intoxicating.” It’s as if the review was written this year, at least when it comes to the original location, which is now House-side at 400 First St. SE.

The House-side Tortilla Coast. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
The House-side Tortilla Coast. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Tortilla Coast, which added a Logan Circle location in late 2011, has been celebrating its silver anniversary this year by upping its game on the menus. But way back when, Head was already won over. “For all my initial doubts, I left Tortilla Coast feeling delighted to have found another good place to eat on the Senate side of the Hill. It won’t satisfy purists, but the atmosphere is lively and fun, the service is quick and friendly, and the food is well-prepared and tasty. The owners of Tortilla Coast have managed to translate a whimsical idea into a good restaurant.” Next stop: a server who would become the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee (Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin), innumerable debate watching parties, the Cruz basement party, interns upon interns at Happy Hour and Capitol Hill immortality.