Cielo Rojo: Earning a Coveted Spot at #5 on Tom Sietsema’s Best New Restaurants Roundup

The area’s restaurant scene continues to garner recognition and praise, both locally and nationally, for its exceptional quality and diverse offerings.

Takoma Park’s Cielo Rojo secured the fifth spot on Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s list of the 26 best new restaurants in the D.C. area, which showcases “a bevy of Mexican options, plant-based fine dining, beautiful burgers, and more.”

To get on the menu, a dish has to pass the “love test,” says David Perez, the top chef at the Mexican gem in Montgomery County.

I appreciate his bar. And I applaud the cooking. Imagine quesadillas stuffed with roasted mushrooms, hit with fried garlic and a splash of tequila, and fabulous, brick-red pozole. The soup is thick with hominy, shredded chicken and buttery avocado, and it thrums with toasted dried chiles, garlic and Mexican oregano. The finishes woo, too. The quesadilla comes painted with two sauces, salsa verde and chile de árbol, plus a scattering of crisp pumpkin seeds.

Cielo Rojo, or “Red Sky,” tripled in size when the owners, including the chef and his wife, Carolina McCandless, vacated their original snug storefront in Takoma Park for a former auto repair shop nearby. (The garage doors remain, but the elevator for moving cars up and down in the back has been transformed into space for private dining.) The vast, light-filled interior benefits from handsome benches, tables and shelves crafted by McCandless’s father and bags of heirloom corn from small farmers in Mexico, stacked near the host stand and a sign of good shopping.

One night, I thought we were invisible. Seated near the bar, multiple servers paraded by, none of whom made eye contact with my party. (We ordered from a friendly margarita maestro behind the counter.) More recent overseers were as engaged as I remembered them from my maiden visit at the new location in winter. Carnitas tacos, their corn wrappers thick enough to support the steak filling, and branzino, striped with vibrant parsley and guajillo sauces, taste better in the company of pleasant caretakers.

There’s plenty to make vegetarians fall for the place. Perez once cooked at a Mexican vegan restaurant in San Francisco; three of his five housemade moles at Cielo Rojo are meat-free. And drivers take note: The neighboring parking lot is free.

Cielo Rojo opened in early 2019 at its original location at 7056 Carroll Ave. in Takoma Park and swiftly gained popularity for its “fine-casual” dining experience, tacos and pozole soup, which was showcased in the season premiere of the WETA TV series Signature Dish last fall (video below).

The restaurant moved to its new, larger location at 7211 Carroll Ave. in January, with its original home becoming San Pancho, a fast-casual eatery specializing in Mission-style burritos that originated in the 1960s in San Francisco’s Mission District; PoPville reported on Tuesday that the exterior signage for San Pancho is currently being installed.

Photo: Cielo Rojo / Facebook

Read More:
Fatal Hit-and-Run in Takoma Park: Suspect Vehicle Identified by Police
Your Mastodon Instance