Nearly three years ago Andale arrived in Washington and changed how we think about Mexican cuisine. This isn't a place to come in search of upscale Tex-Mex -- that's not what's offered on Executive Chief and co-owner Alison Swope's menu of the "contemporary flavors of Mexico. "
More than contemporary flavors are offered, as well: The attractive bistro in Penn Quarter is awash in buttery yellow walls, fabulous tiles, and vivid Mexican artwork giving the space a lively and inviting feel. Fabric lanterns and bronze light sculptures further enhance the experience.
This is the perfect place for a light snack or dinner before heading off to the nearby MCI Center or Shakespeare Theatre. On Monday nights nearly every bottle on the wine list is half price, one of the best bargains you'll find downtown.
Swope's inspiration for Andale, (Spanish slang for "let's go ") came from a month-long holiday in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and the Yucatan. Along with her existing fascination with the traditional peppers and herbs of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, she found new inspiration in the complexity of these regional cuisines. Before opening Andale, Swope cooked at the innovative New Heights, as well as Alexandria's Santa Fe East.
Taquitos de pollo is a great way to start off. Thethin corn tortillas are filled with chicken, Chihuahua cheese, and chipolte chile then flash fried and presented with two different salsas. They are crunchy and delicious and will have you wishing for more.
Queso Fundido con Chorizo arrives at the table bubbling hot, with flour tortillas for dipping into the mixture of Chihuahua cheese, spicy Chorizo sausage and Poblano chile strips. It won't take long to taste why this is a big favorite at Andale.
Its hard to get excited about empanadas, but Swope's version -- made with corn flour pastry wrapped around gulf shrimp simmered with garlic, tomato and Serrano chiles -- proves the exception. Flash-fried to a delightful crunchiness, this remarkable empanada is nicely complimented by fresh guacamole and queso fresco.
Andale also takes the appreciation of tequila to an extreme, with more than 40 brands available. Diners can have a special card stamped each time they try a different one. After getting all 40 stamps, you get lunch for two, a personalized tequila shot glass, and a lifetime 25 percent discount on future tequila shots. Talk about devotees.
Among the entrées, pan seared grouper fillet served over roasted corn purée and sautéed broccoli rabe gets high marks. A sauce of toasted pumpkin seeds, garlic, sour cream and serrano chiles adds a subtle zip.
Pescado Endiablado, a recent special of grilled halibut marinated in green chiles and served with a gordita stuffed with mizuna, avocado, bacon and goat cheese was spectacular. Mizuna, a delicate salad green from Japan, isn't something you'll find often in Washington, but it's the perfect, refreshing partner to the fresh halibut.
Barbacoa de Borrego -- braised leg of lamb -- is somewhat surprising. After being rubbed with a paste of red chiles, garlic and oregano it's covered with avocado leaves, imparting their distinctive flavor during the long roasting process. With braised meats much of the flavor ends up in the roasting juices. Happily, those fabulous juices are served here along with the lamb in a kind of soup studded with garbanzos, carrots and potatoes, perfect for dipping. The portion is enormous and will undoubtedly satisfy the biggest of appetites.
Andale's desserts are no less accomplished. Churros, Mexican-style doughnuts dusted with sugar arrive with a cup of Abuelita chocolate for dipping. The churros are soft in the center and gently flavored with cinnamon that teams beautifully with the slightly bitter chocolate.
Pastelito de pina is a pineapple upside-down cake with fresh pineapple and a decidedly Mexican flair. Drizzled in a dark rum-caramel sauce and sent over the top with coconut ice cream, this sweet concoction will leave you on a sugar high.
At the beginning of November, Andale celebrates one of Mexico's most popular holidays, El Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Despite its name, it's a very festive holiday featuring special foods, colorful flowers and exotic decorations honoring the dead. But why wait until November? You'll want to experience Andale as soon as possible.