Years later, I’m at a four-top inside this one-room storefront, now named La Casa de Alberto, while a server hustles a basket of chips and three salsas to the table. The tender works her margarita moves behind the bar, and a family at a nearby table serenades a red-faced teenager with “Happy Birthday.”
But don’t ask me what else is happening in the room. My gaze is captured – taken prisoner – by the plates that overtake every inch of my table. Dark-meat chicken buried under a chocolate-brown mantle of mole ($5); a sizzling plate of steak fajitas, with accoutrements ($12); four tacos covered in cilantro and fresh onion ($5); and one lonely – but not lowly – pork tamale ($2.50). The feast is relaxed and immensely satisfying. I look for some resemblance to Conejito’s – the Fifth and Virginia staple known for bare-bones Mexican food served on paper plates – but the owners of Casa de Alberto (both have worked at Conejito’s) seem to have no interest in duplicating their previous employer, except for that restaurant’s level of affordability.
What they do seem interested in is quality, from the pastor (spicy pork) on the tacos to the rich, subtly spicy tang of the mole. Chile rellenos ($8) – a fried poblano pepper stuffed with cheese and topped with salsa – is often a daily special, served with decent rice and beans. On the weekends, they whip up posole ($6.50), a pork soup with chunks of pork shoulder and hominy in a rich stock. The shredded cabbage, fresh lime, raw onion and a thick chile sauce served with it add character to this beautifully simple soup. That’s a fitting carryover to the (relatively small) menu in toto.