Mexican food can be tricky. On one hand, your typical taco, quesadilla, and fajita can be kind of boring. But on the other hand, many are skeptical of “upscale” or “reinvented” Mexican cuisine, as it may seem inauthentic or ridiculously overpriced. Luckily, Johnny Pistolas is a restaurant that hits both the traditional and the revitalized aspects of Mexican cuisine out of the park and in a fashion where your wallet will be as fat and happy as your stomach…
Johnny Pistolas is huddled away in Adams Morgan – one of the coolest and most artsy neighborhoods in DC. Plus, it’s close to so many great destinations – the Zoo, Cleveland Park, U Street, and even Dupont Circle are within walking distance. So based on Johnny’s location and food quality, I’m always shocked when I walk in and see an empty table. I told my friend who dined with me that it’s time to put this place on the map because it deserves to be there.
Johnny’s is a great place for either brunch or dinner. For brunch, the restaurant has a $25 bottomless food option and an additional unlimited drinks add-on for $15. If you’re not into imbibing on a big level, the a la carte menu will surely have something for you. If you’re dining for dinner and are down to chow, opt for one of the awesome large format options like the Taco Trays or the Johnny Grande Platter of assorted goodies. These are the real deal. For example, $26 will buy you an assortment of six tacos, chips and guac, Baja slaw, a couple gorditas, and some spicy cucumbers to top it all off with. Sometimes I can’t even believe this is all real.
Now let’s talk about brunch for a minute. Admittedly, I lost faith in chilaquiles a long time ago. This Mexican breakfast item of crispy tortillas simmered in salsa and topped with eggs and meat always sounds amazing in theory, but ends up being so regrettable in reality, as the tortillas are typically soggy and the dish oftentimes looks like the abstract painting of a five-year-old. Clearly I have a lot of negative feelings about chilaquiles from my past experiences, but something was telling me that I should order them at Johnny’s, and thank god I did. A beautifully plated, crispy layer of tortillas topped with juicy beef barbacoa and Serrano crema was delivered to my seat moments later, and I wanted to kiss my subconsciousness for having faith and knowing, somehow, that that time would be different. Every bite was a religious experience of melt-in-your-mouth beef that you know had been braised with love for hours, combined with fresh green salsa that made you pucker ever so slightly, which was all topped with a creamy and surprisingly dairy-free crema with a light kick. If that wasn’t heaven, I don’t know what is.
I also ordered the Arepas de Carnitas with black beans, Baja slaw, serrano crema, and seared tomatoes. If you’ve never had an arepa, you should get on it because it’s basically a NOBREAD-er’s dream. An arepa is pretty much a sandwich stuffed with tender meat and whatever else you want, into a corn griddlecake, making it gluten-free. I would take an arepa over bread any day. After being toasted on the griddle, the corn cake has a crispy exterior and incredibly fluffy interior – a slice of sandwich bread really can’t compare. I’ve had many great arepa in my day, but Johnny Pistolas’ rendition definitely proved worthy.
Additional highlights of the brunch menu also included the guacamole, served with larger corn chips nearly the size of a tostada, and the LA-style Wedge salad with grilled romaine, corn, radishes, Cotija cheese, roasted pepitas, seared tomatoes, and a choice of dressing and meat. Don’t forget to stock up on tacos, which can be found on both the brunch and dinner menus. I’m usually not a chorizo fan, but Johnny’s chorizo taco was melt-in-your-mouth good and the best one of the bunch.
Next time you’re looking for a place to hit up for tacos and margs, make the trek out to Johnny Pistolas. Your stomach will thank you.