The chef’s chief memories of Canada were about the conditions outside the restaurant, not inside it. “I just got tired of the cold,” he says. “It’s crazy cold.”
Gomez wasn’t ready for another winter north of the border. Besides, he had a sweet gig at El Balcon, a well-regarded rooftop restaurant with sweeping views of the Plaza de la Constitución, the main public square in Mexico City. He was leading a team that recognized few boundaries, combining European and pre-Columbian ingredients and techniques for such playful dishes as huitlacoche risotto, octopus carpaccio and an avocado tlayuda with escamoles.
But then Voskuil made his pitch: He invited Gomez to visit DC, if only to prove to the chef that you don’t need an instruction manual on how to dress for winter in Washington. It turned out to be a smart move: During his trip, Gomez realized he could actually be of service. He could inject a little CDMX street food veracity into our taco scene, which he found lacking.
This is how, in the end, Voskuil convinced Gomez – a chef formally trained at El Colegio Superior de Gastronomia and a guy without any professional experience making tacos – to run his taqueria in an Alexandria strip center. The owner gave Gomez the keys to the kitchen at Taqueria Picoso and let him run it like a street vendor with fine-dining sensibilities.
The beauty of Gomez’s efforts – and those of his team, including sous chef Isaac Ramirez, also from Mexico City – is that the crew doesn’t demand you stop and ooh and aah over their creations, like some four-star chef hovering over your table, aching for a compliment. You can savor their tacos in complete ignorance of the amount of work that goes into them. I’m not arguing that happy, mindless snarfing is habit worth celebrating, but it’s more in line with the street-food ethos that co-owners Voskuil and wife Lynn Umemoto have embraced.
Take, for example, the al pastor tacos at Picoso. Plenty of taquerias use a vertical spit to cook their marinated pork – Las Gemelas in the Union Market District; La Placita in Hyattsville; and La Jarochita No. 2 in Arlington spring to mind – but none aim for the cross-cultural traditionalism of Gomez’s version. He wanted an al pastor that paid homage to the taco’s Lebanese roots, so his marinade includes sweeter elements, like cinnamon, which coats two different cuts of pork before they’re layered onto a spit and roasted. His al pastor taco may be gone in three bites, but they are three glorious bites.
As with Las Gemelas, the kitchen at Picoso makes its own masas, based on yellow, blue and white corn varieties grown in the central valleys of Oaxaca. Gomez and his crew don’t press the mass by hand, a process too laborious for a busy restaurant. Instead, they rely on a machine, which stamps out golden, perfectly round tortillas with the scent of sweet corn. Now, I understand tortilla thickness is personal. Some like them as sheer as silk, like those tortillas at El Sol. Others favor a sturdier base, like those at Picoso, where the tortillas have heftwhich explains why each taco is wrapped in only a single layer.
As much as I like the tall-grass perfume of Picoso’s tortillas, I find that their thickness can, on occasion, serve as a wet blanket, smothering fillings that the kitchen has so meticulously prepared. This is especially true with the otherwise superb vegan chorizo taco packed with roasted potatoes, beans, avocado and chihuahua cheese. Other preparations, like the lamb barbacoa and cochinita pibil, stand up better to tortillas, though I must confess that the bulky wrappers often gum up the works, making for big, chewy bites. These fillings deserve a delivery method with a little more delicacy.
You’ll encounter no such issues with the Baja shrimp and fish tacos, both of which are swaddled in flour tortillas. Both are also among my favorite orders at Picoso. The fish taco is particularly inspired, pairing a length of fried cod with avocado, jalapeños, cilantro and a kale-and-tomato salad. The bite is then finished with a velvet hammer: a jalapeno-cucumber dressing. This taco is just locked down.
Tacos may be the main attraction here, but other dishes have grabbed my attention, too. Traditional or not, Gomez’s Sonoran hot dog will forever be the standard by which I judge all others. His bacon-wrapped dog is smothered in housemade frijols charros, this black-hole condiment of pinto beans, chorizo, bacon and more. It will suck you in. His crab tostadas, on fried blue-corn tortillas, are the counterpoint to the dog: fresh, clean, crackly. And if I’ve had a better elote than Gomez’s version, a grilled cob dusted with two shades of roasted red pepper, I can’t remember it.
Tucked into the Shops at Mark Center, on the same strip as a Subway and McDonald’s, Taqueria Picoso has a more DIY aesthetic than its corporate neighbors, thanks to Umemoto who stitched together the interior with jeweled mirrors, corrugated metal and loteria wallpaper. She also helped design the logo, a hungry riff on an Aztec god, which gives the taqueria a different vibe altogether: One that feels ready to replicate itself.
Don’t be surprised if Umemoto and Voskuil open more Taqueria Picosos. It appears to be a part of their business plan. So does something else: As the owners reach the “twilight of our careers,” as the 62-year-old Voskuil describes it, they’re looking to the day when they’ll sell the business. They already have folks in mind as the next-generation proprietors. One of them happens to be the fine-dining chef from Mexico City who helped build Taqueria Picoso.
Hours: 11:30 am to 9 pm Monday through Thursday; 11:30 am to 10 pm Friday and Saturday; 11:30 am to 8 pm Sunday.
Prices: $ 2 to $ 80 for all items on the menu, including family-style meals.