For the most part, I am always in control and in charge with the exception of (now) two situations: 1. In earthquakes, as evidenced when I completely lost my shit at exactly 1:51 p.m. yesterday and 2. On flights, when hurtling through the air at 500 mph in a metal cylinder full of gasoline 30,000 feet above ground. Flying is not a phobia—as in, it doesn’t stop me from traveling—I just loathe it.
A few weeks ago, I was due on a plane to Manchester, England, on a Sunday afternoon. What better way to prepare for seven hours of clenching a plastic armrest than spending the day brunching my way to inebriation so that I could totter through TSA and relax—marginally—during takeoff. The plan of attack? Three solid hours at El Centro and its bottomless tequila brunch and endless food for $35 (everyone at your table has to be committed to this debauchery, though.)
I had been in El Centro only once before—when I shot straight up those stairs to the roof bar for cocktails under the stars (and what a lovely roof deck is it up there). I had no idea the depth of the restaurant. It has three floors, and you have to walk past the kitchen on the main floor to get to the stairs to the “tequileria” underground, which is definitely the best room in the house.
The interior down there is amazing. For all you know, you could be sitting in the basement of an upscale Mexican tequila distillery. The ceilings are gorgeous polished wood bowed into arches, the tables are wooden planks, the unisex bathrooms decked with beautiful tile. It’s dimly lit, perfect for a hangover, and the speakers are pumping upbeat Spanish music.
The brunch menu is made for sharing—it’s endless, so of course you’re going to order everything and share everything—just like at its sister restaurant, Masa 14 (clearly the Richard Sandoval group found a winning brunch formula). The good thing about El Centro is that the dishes aren’t as small. They’re quite hefty, and they’re surprisingly authentic for a company that serves a completely different international cuisine just next door.
But first thing’s first: tequila! Because, why wouldn’t you just go for the gold before noon on a weekend? El Centro doesn’t serve their fantastic margaritas at brunch, instead, opting for more “breakfast” cocktails, they told us. What that means is a bottomless selection of Michilada, Bloody Maria, or a choice of seasonal aqua fresco cocktails: hibiscus, watermelon, and pineapple when we were there, but it’s dependent on what’s in season.
We were a bit disappointed that the cocktail list was missing something with orange juice, so we ordered a tequila sunrise, which was great. And then we started ordering tequila shots. And some time after that, I stopped taking notes or even paying attention to what I was eating, because it was all so good. So, I’ll let my Bitches wax poetic about the food …
From Mary Beth, who was the table’s VIP, clad with the paper business card with “VIP” scrawled on it that she demanded from the restaurant’s manager:
“The brunch plates I liked the most are the same favorites I enjoy making on a lazy Sunday at home: crispy fried potatoes, a basic breakfast taco, and a sweet waffle or pastry. I would say the simple egg, bacon, and cheese taco, Creamy Rajas Potatoes, and Mexican Chocolate Waffle were the standout favorites for me. I also really liked the Huevos y Chile Relleno, but I could have done without a fried egg on top of everything else (I didn’t think I’d ever say that).
“I had high hopes for the drinks on El Centro’s brunch menu because of their margaritas I’ve learned to love from happy hour and dinners there, and they pretty much met expectations. The servers were so attentive and accommodating that it made up for my minor complaints about the Bloody Maria not being spicy enough and missing garnishes. By the time I left El Centro a couple hours after the endless food and drinks, I was in no mood to complain at all.”
From Brooke, who drinks warm tequila shots even when not at a tequila brunch, and who had been giddily Gchatting her excitement to me for five days prior to this brunch:
“The food was great, but I liked the variety at Masa 14 better. I liked the Mexican take on brunch, particularly the Huevos y Chile Relleno. Just spicy enough to remind you it was a chile, but nothing that wouldn’t make a perfectly runny yolk taste even better. And mmm, breakfast tacos. Done the right way.
“The drinks? Well, they were tequila, so I can’t complain. Of the aqua frescas, I liked the pineapple the best; it was the least sweet of the three. But, I would have also preferred straight tequila. Silly mixers. I don’t need training wheels. All said, still an amazing bottomless deal, but you better want tequila, because you aren’t getting a mimosa here.
“I thought the service was superb: Our waitress was quick with the drinks, and good with recommendations on what to order. It was a nice touch that the manager also came by to chat, and accommodate our unruly table’s request for tequila on the rocks (at 11:30!) and tequila sunrises. And, of course, to provide the “VIP card,” which probably means nothing but provided some entertainment.”
From Will, who already frequents El Centro way too much, and salivated over the brunch press release I forwarded to the group a week prior:
“I am an avid, almost unreasonable El Centro fan for two reasons: 1. the table service is awesome (the server from my first visit remembered me 2.5 months later, for no good/bad reason) and 2. I usually end up drinking a fair amount while I am there (the Lavanda is one of the best tequila-based drinks I’ve ever had). The food is generally good, but their creative dishes stand out much more than their boiler plate dishes (the Nopal tacos are memorable but the chicken enchiladas are just so-so).
“Our server, Marjana, was inhumanly patient with the bossy member of our group, very attentive (never an empty glass and regular deliveries of food), and helpful. The best food dishes were the sides: creamy rajas potatoes, and red chilaquiles. I loved that they had fried eggs on everything. The notable small plates were the Huevos y Chile Relleno, the sopes de huevo y salsa verde (with crab) and the egg and bean tacos (add potatoes for heaven).
“The hibiscus and pineapple aguas frescas were the best of the brunch bebidas. The Manager, Allen, was super tolerant of our ‘suggestions’ and also attentive: at our request he made a Tequila sunrise and then another one when it was deemed to have too much grenadine. There was some room for improvement: the Bloody Maria could use some garnishes or spices (it was basically just tequila and tomato juice) and the Michilada was close to being excellent, but just missed the mark (I still drank two).
“Also, I didn’t really find anything brunch-y about the Jaliscos enchiladas but maybe that was because it was the last dish served during our three-hour gorge-fest. I will go back, eat too much, drink too much, and leave loving El Centro the same.”
There was a line when we got there at 11 a.m., and I know now why. Make a reservation and plan to spend at least two hours there. We were unhurried by the servers and constantly bathed in attention. It was a great brunch.
The Bitches say: A+ A great bottomless/endless brunch in a great atmosphere with stellar service. Doesn’t get better than that.
1819 14th Street NW