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Tortilla Coast, Capitol Hill spot specializing in Tex-Mex and political intrigue, faces closure

The popular House-side hangout could shut its doors by July 26

Tortilla Coast, at First and D streets Southeast, is pictured on July 13, 2020.
Tortilla Coast, at First and D streets Southeast, is pictured on July 13, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The end of a Capitol Hill era, one marked by frozen margaritas and queso combos, is nigh.

Tortilla Coast, the Tex-Mex restaurant that played host to staffers, interns and lawmakers and employed a future speaker of the House, is expected to close its doors by Sunday, July 26, co-owner Geoff Tracy told Heard on the Hill on Monday.

“Right now we’re going to keep it open for another week and hope for a miracle,” Tracy said.

The popular hangout that opened in 1988 on the Senate side (in a space that is now occupied by Union Pub) before relocating one block from the Cannon House Office Building drew those hankering for cheap tacos, frozen rita machines and, of course, guac.

Privacy, however, was not on the menu.

The watering hole was a convenient spot for meetings that rarely flew under the radar; the House Freedom Caucus made it an unofficial gathering place for years.

In 2013, it was the government shutdown that brought together House Republicans (and Sen. Ted Cruz). A couple years later, it was the Iran nuclear deal. Either way, chips and salsa probably made strategy sessions easier to digest.

Tortilla Coast is where former Speaker Paul D. Ryan got a big break (sort of). The aspiring politician and congressional aide met his mentor, the late Rep. Jack Kemp, while working his second job as a waiter. Ryan later went to work for Kemp at Empower America, then went on to get elected to the House and, like Kemp, was an unsuccessful candidate for vice president.

While the coronavirus pandemic has forced D.C. bars (and others across the world) to adjust their business models, it isn’t entirely to blame. Tracy says he’s been trying to negotiate a more affordable lease for the restaurant for 18 months.

“Without patio space, a full-service restaurant that serves inexpensive food doesn’t have much of a chance,” he said.

So can a takeout menu and a history of secret Freedom Caucus basement meetings save it? Tracy and his brother (and business partner) Chris hope so.

“We like tacos and cheap margaritas, and we’d like to put it somewhere,” he said.

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