Image: Tuna and Uni Tostada
Last Visited: November 2019
Poca Madre is an excellent restaurant that has found its groove. You enter from the side of the building, around the corner from Taco Bamba, and pass into a high-ceiling oasis where Chef/Owner Victor Albisu serves upscale Mexican cuisine. Nearly all leave impressed. Rather than starting strong and falling off, Poca Madre seems to be gathering steam.
The first sign of creativity is the chips and salsa. Served in a small metal bowl, it is a single crisp circle that you break into three or four pieces and dip into the sauce underneath. It is not there to stuff you before the main course. It is a scene setter. From there, choose from appetizers that are heavy on fresh and veggie options. The tuna and uni tostada is creamy and crispy. The Hamachi ceviche with hibiscus agua Jamaica is far from the standard. The entrees also are deeply flavorful and can be rich. The winner is the duck done al Pastor style and is meant to be shared. The server said it was the best thing on the menu, and it may be the best thing in several square blocks. Like the mole fried chicken, it comes with blue corn tortillas so you can eat it as little tacos. There is also a very big burrito on the menu that list its ingredients as: wagyu, lobster, caviar, robiola, and black truffle-black beans. Other dishes are less opulent. Lighter fish dishes can be found among the entrees, though one is done as a torta sandwich. Desserts are also a mix of sophisticated high and low. Suspiro Mexicano is a mélange of light flavors including meringue, caramel corn and ash. The “Donas” are small, churro-flavored donuts with dulce de leche sauce.
Mezcal is at the heart of the beverage program, both straight-up or included in cocktails. There is a whole separate menu just for the spirit. The wine list is interesting and includes many Latin American choices, though it is a bit steep with nearly all the reds starting at $100 and going up from there. Despite the long history of Mexican brewing, there are only a handful of beer options on the list (but that probably reflects diners’ preferences more than the restaurant’s).
The atmosphere hovers in that space between formal and casual. The look is serene, but the staff is energetic. There is a hum of conversation in the air, but the low-volume music in the background keeps it from forcing you to raise your voice. The bar area is limited to six seats, which also limits the din and congestion (but can throw a wrench into plans to dine solo).
It took a while for Poca Madre to settle in, but it also took me a while to figure it out. The mix of high and low elements seemed muddled initially, but developed into a skilled playfulness. Rather than falling off the radar, time between visits heightened the desire to return for the deep, rich flavors. It is a relatively expensive meal, but one that justifies a trip across town when the cravings kick in. The last two visits have raised the rating to “Worth Paying for Cab.”
Other Guidance: It is fine dining but not fancy, jeans are not out of place, but anything grungy is. There are GF and vegetarian options and many more if pescatarian. The quality of the staff is highlighted by the manager I saw talking through the menu to work around a dairy allergy, highlighting safe dishes or those that could be modified.
Rating: Worth Paying for Cab (upgraded)
Cuisine: Latin American (upscale Mexican)
Neighborhood: Chinatown/City Center
Address: 777 I Street NW, Washington, DC 20001
Washington Post: Tom gave in 2.5 stars early, but upgraded to 3.0 in the Fall 2019 Dining Guide, where he listed it at #6 (scroll down in the link to see the progression).
Washingtonian: #34 in 2019. Preview.
Lori: Short review in 2018: “Poca Madre means ‘little mother’ which translates to cool, awesome, and interesting. The name is a perfect fit.”
Rick Eats DC: #18 on his Spring 2019 Top 25. “Most of the reinventions work beautifully, from the technicolor raw fish preparations to the large plates of chicken and duck.”
Tyler: “One of my favorite places right now, you could call it Mexican-Peruvian fusion”
Michelin: Plate rating.