Mexican food on a college budget
One of the first conversations we had before we became roommates was food: what we liked, how we liked it and how we were going to get what we liked in D.C. With Sarah coming from Vermont and Haley hailing from Texas, we have had vastly different experiences with Mexican food, ranging from delicious neighborhood dives to chain restaurants like Chipotle. So we decided to spend our first month in the District discovering Mexican food that we could both adore, afford and find within a weekend.
We took on restaurants in Tenleytown and Georgetown that we felt were accessible and cheap enough for the typical AU student. Our one-day eating strategy may have influenced our opinions of the food, but we tried to be as objective as possible throughout the experience.
A classic stop for AU students, Guapo’s offers a lot of food for a decent price. The menu contains all the standards, but we ordered the chicken burrito and cheese enchiladas with a side of chips and queso.
Sarah: Probably because I hadn’t eaten an enchilada in what seemed like forever, I scarfed my meal down in minutes. I opted not to get beans, but I ordered a double portion of rice, which may have been a mistake. The rice had so many veggies that I began to question if my dish was even rice at all. It seemed odd that the restaurant added green beans to the Mexican rice. I also indulged in some chips with queso, guacamole and salsa, which was appetizing until we ran out of chips and weren’t able to get more.
Overall, my experience at Guapo’s was up to par. Yes, I had some complaints here and there, but the restaurant was still light years above anything I could ever expect to receive in my small hometown in Vermont.
Haley: The burrito was satisfactory, despite the semi-crunchy rice mixed in with the cheese and chicken that created an unsavory texture. The queso was above my expectations, but the restaurant was strangely stingy with chip refills. A huge bowl of queso with a minuscule amount of chips didn’t make for a great experience.
The dim sombrero lights threw me off the entire night. Whenever I see a decked out Mexican restaurant, my immediate thought is that they’re overcompensating for sub-par food or sky-high prices. That being said, Guapo’s backed up its reputation during our visit with decently-priced food and leftovers for the next day.
Price range: $10-$13 per dish
Where: 4515 Wisconsin Ave. NW
Metro: Tenleytown-AU, Red Line
Located in Georgetown, Los Cuates is eerily similar to Guapo’s in almost every way. The decor, the lighting, the prices and even the food were essentially the same as the Tenleytown favorite.
Sarah: I ordered cheese enchiladas, but the restaurant accidentally added chicken into the mix. The enchiladas were tasty, though they reminded me quite a bit of my previous meal at Guapo’s. I also enjoyed the salsa immensely, which had the right mix of spice and flavor to make me keep going back for more dips. Coming from a place that considers Chipotle the height of Mexican cuisine, I thought Los Cuates was delicious.
Haley: Los Cuates, although a bit more tastefully decorated than Guapo’s, still had the feeling of overcompensation. Mexican rap music—known to Sarah as “disappointing non-Shakira music”—blared over the loudspeakers throughout our meal. With large windows overlooking the Georgetown crosswalk, the lighting was a large improvement from Guapo’s dim setting.
The menu offered essentially had the same choices as Guapo’s menu. I ordered the chicken quesadillas, coincidentally the cheapest thing on the menu outside of chips and guacamole. They were surprisingly flavorful and the order was large enough for me to have leftovers. But what put Los Cuates above Guapo’s for me was the excellent service we received throughout our lunch. It could’ve been that it was an abnormally quiet afternoon for the staff, but we received more drink and chip refills in the first 30 minutes than we got during our entire time at Guapo’s.
Price range: $12-15 per dish
Where: 1564 Wisconsin Ave. NW
Metro: Bus stop, D1-D3 lines
A cantina within walking distance of Los Cuates, we made Don Lobo’s our last stop on our Mexican-food sampling extravaganza. Of course, we were stuffed from our previous meals, so we opted to get our food to-go this time. Looking at the menu, we saw an item called “twin burritos, a special that offered one chicken and one beef burrito for the price of one. To us, the special sounded like a great choice for both our stomachs and our wallets.
Sarah: We didn’t sample the burritos until the next day, and we ventured into the lounge to reheat them. Immediately, we were surrounded by our floormates, everyone demanding to know what they were and discussing how good they looked. After a quick microwave zap, the burritos were hot enough to eat and we dug in. I was partial to the chicken one and found both burritos satisfying in size for the price we paid. However, I noticed several potatoes mixed in with the chicken and cheese, which I thought was a weird addition to a burrito.
Haley: I haven’t encountered potatoes in a burrito in quite some time, but potatoes are in almost every Mexican dish, according to my grandfather, who is Mexican. I wasn’t into the potatoes at first, but I ended up finding them the most enjoyable item in the beef burrito. The highlight of our experience was the chips and queso we took home, which we ate on the floor of a friend’s dorm room a little past midnight.
Although we didn’t get the chance to eat in Don Lobo’s dining room, I was happy with how accommodating they were to our to-go request. They gave us our order within ten minutes and seemed prepared to deal with college kids and their weird requests. Plus, who isn’t down with food that still tastes good after two minutes in the microwave?
Price range: $11-$14 per dish
Where: 2811 M St. NW
Metro: Bus stop, DCDGR or DCWE lines
Despite some speed bumps along the way, we found D.C.’s Mexican options to be easy to find and affordable. The food was consistently flavorful and surpassed our expectations, regardless of the location. No matter where you come from, the District has something to offer both your wallet and your taste buds.