Cielo Rojo’s Spotlight: Tom Sietsema’s Top 6 D.C. Area Eateries

Local and national attention and praise continue to be drawn to area restaurants for their quality and diversity.

Cielo Rojo, which recently moved to a larger location in Takoma Park, has been highlighted as one of Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s top 6 places to eat in the D.C. area right now:

The pandemic made one thing clear to the owners of the beloved but tiny Cielo Rojo in Takoma Park: They needed more space to serve their hit tacos and margaritas. But there wasn’t an empty restaurant space to be found anywhere in town.

In a stroke of luck, the owners of the nearby Healy Surgeons, an auto repair shop, wanted to slow down and rent out the ground floor of their 3,500-square-foot business. Just to make sure they liked their potential tenants, Bruce and Inan Phillips invited chef David Perez and his wife and partner, Carolina McCandless, to their home for dinner.

The result — a light-filled showroom of a dining room — has Mexican food fans cheering. Everywhere you look are signs of attention to detail: bags of corn from small farmers in Mexico behind the host stand crafted by McCandless’s dad near tables set with such vivid food that it could just as well be served in a frame as on a plate. See, for instance, the sprightly garland of citrusy diced rockfish, buttery avocado and sliced radishes circling a stinging charcoal-black pool of charred habaneros, vinegar and more. Fetching gold and purple tostadas complete the picture.

Taste for yourself, though. The tacos are sold by the piece. One succulent shredded-chicken taco, or juicy-with-beer-and-orange pork number, begs for another. A bigger kitchen means more variety. The taco fillings embrace al pastor; moles now include peanut and vegetarian versions. Rachel Bindel, previously with Gravitas and Tail Up Goat, is the No. 2 in the kitchen. The chef de cuisine’s background is fine dining, but her passion is Mexican, says McCandless, who shares that Bindel was known for whipping up Mexican food for staff meals at Tail Up Goat.

The young restaurant lets diners spread out and admire the fatherly contributions. “I’d see something online and my dad would say, ‘I can build that,’” including handsome tables, shelves and benches, says McCandless, a genial host with a good eye. A private room in the back can accommodate 30; the owners plan to host tasting menus, paired with tequila, there.

The original Cielo Rojo won’t be dark for long. The owners plan to reopen it as a San Francisco-style burrito and torta stop sometime in spring. For some of us, a new season can’t get here fast enough.

Cielo Rojo opened in early 2019 at 7056 Carroll Ave. in Takoma Park. The Mexican restaurant is popular for its “fine-casual” dining style and is especially known for its pozole souptacos, and outdoor dining. Former WCP food editor Laura Hayes praised the restaurant, including their Quesa Birria on the list of the “13 Best Under $35 Dishes D.C. Area Restaurants Served in 2021.” Additionally, the restaurant’s pozole verde was featured in the season premiere of WETA’s ‘Signature Dish’ last fall (video below).

The restaurant opened in its new space at 7211 Carroll Ave. earlier this month. Its former location will soon become San Pancho, a fast-casual restaurant specializing in serving Mission-style burritos, which originated in the 1960s in the Mission District of San Francisco.

Photo: Cielo Rojo / Facebook

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