Mexican Replaces Caribbean as Tortuga Morphs into Playa Ocho Cantina

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Also at Playa Ocho, quesadillas are garnished with sour cream, guacamole and pico de gallo, the Mexican flag colors.

Adios, conch fritters. Hola, sizzling fajitas. Mexico has replaced the Caribbean as Tortuga Caribbean Bar & Grille, 514 Eighth St. SE, morphs into Playa Ocho Cantina. The “new” restaurant remains under the ownership of Hill Restaurant Group.

Playa Ocho ‒ Beach on Eighth ‒ sports a lively ambience, replete with skull motifs, brightly colored serapes, hats and pastel-hued tables and chairs. The upstairs roof garden, even more festive, features neon lighting zigzags around the lively bar as firepits ward off the early spring chill.

Settling in the downstairs dining area, we sipped our drinks, of which more will be said, and perused the revamped menu. The star of the show was the elote – Mexican street corn. The good-sized grilled ear was dripping with melted cotija cheese and sprinkled with cumin and a smattering of salt. Momentarily considering attacking it with knife and fork, I simply picked it up and chewed away. Almost a meal in itself.

elote ‒ tasty Mexican street corn ‒ heads the menu at Playa Ocho Cantina.

Fortunately, I saved room for my shrimp quesadilla, a quartet of flour tortillas oozing with melted Chihuahua cheese and a few plump crustaceans. Other options included chicken or beef. The handsome platter was garnished with pico de gallo, sour cream and guacamole ‒ the colors of the Mexican flag. Peter’s generous burrito was filled with spicy shredded pork and escorted with black beans, Spanish-style rice, pico de gallo and guacamole.

Among other South of the Border offerings are fondue-like queso fundido, seafood posole, assorted tacos, camarones, carne molida. Besides a selection of soups, lighter offerings include ensalada de taco and a Mexican Cobb with optional add-ons.

Tequila flows, incorporated into several margarita varieties. I sipped a tangy, refreshing mango-flavored classic. One might also choose watermelon or jalapeno margaritas, a pina colada or a Miami Vice (strawberry meets pineapple) pina colada, plus beer and wine. There’s also a happy hour and kids’ menu. For more information visit www.playaochodc.com.

Mussel Power

Belga Cafe, 514 Eighth St. SE, now offers a Tuesday special, mussels for $23. The plump mollusks may be enhanced with white wine, shallots, butter, garlic, parsley and more. Visit www.belgacafe.com for hours and a full menu.

On H Street, Cane showcases Caribbean cuisine, including
“doubles,” a popular street food in Trinidad.

Caribbean Power

We finally returned to Cane, 403 H St. NE. This Caribbean hotspot is as good as ever. Our large group ordered a variety of dishes, including the tongue-torching “doubles” favored by Barack Obama, who is depicted in a mural enjoying one. Always plural, doubles is a popular street snack in Trinidad and Tobago made with spicy chickpeas piled atop fried flatbread. At Cane, a doubles arrives on a pretty blue-patterned plate. Unlike the ex-prez, we used a knife and fork.

We considered ordering another Caribbean staple, snapper escovitch, a traditional marinated and grilled fish. However, we settled on the “bowl” of meaty oxtails, with a bed of jasmine rice and a cooling cucumber salad, served in attractive metal vessels with handles. Another crowd pleaser is the jerk chicken wings. The wings are marinated and smoked over pimento wood. The chef’s rum punch ‒ dark rum, lime juice and Angostura bitters ‒ complements these spicy dishes. Room for dessert? A favorite is the smooth, creamy coconut flan. For hours and more information visit www.cane-dc.com.

Menu Change

Nearby, Irregardless, 502 H St. NE, has ditched its $85-per-person tasting menu in favor of a sensibly priced a la carte option. Leading the makeover is newly named executive chef Laetitia Chrapchynski, who moved from her native Calgary in 2021 to be the head chef at the Canadian Embassy. For hours and the details on the new menu visit www.irregardlessdc.com.

Depicted on a mural at Cane, Barack Obama chows down on a “doubles.”

H Street Farmers

Market Opens

Nearby, FRESHFARM H Street Market, 800 13th St. NE, welcomes spring with extended hours. Look for the bustling market on Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30. p.m. For more information and a list of vendors visit www.freshfarm.org.

Watch This Space

Coming soon to the Navy Yard is Any Day Now, at 2 I St. SE, the former premises of ABC Pony. The jazzy all-day enterprise is the brainchild of chef Tim Ma, who brought us Arlington’s Lucky Danger and Laoban Dumplings in Union Market. Watch this column for details.

Already arrived is Surveyor, 221 Tingey St. SE, located in the hip Thompson Hotel. Besides a lively rooftop bar, the lobby-level newcomer has recently launched a weekend brunch. Expect avocado sandwiches, smoked salmon toast, fried chicken and waffles. House-made pop tarts evoke childhood memories. A loftier addition, the establishment’s lively rooftop bar, boasts an expansive view. For more information visit www.surveyorrestaurant.com.

Crazy Aunt Helen’s on Barracks Row is a finalist for Favorite Gathering Place in the 2023 RAMMYS awards.

Wine about It

Nearby, District Winery Restaurant, 385 Water St. SE, has announced its spring menu. Crafted from seasonal ingredients, the modern American lineup includes garlic shrimp, pan-seared skate wing, bison meatballs, roasted Bell & Evans chicken with Swiss chard. For more information visit www.districtwinery.com.

More Pizza?

And coming soon is Pupatella Neapolitan Pizza, located in the long-vacant corner at 301 Massachusetts Ave. NE. The other day, I peeked inside and glimpsed the ongoing renovation. The location is the fifth for the fledgling pizza chain, which has outlets throughout the Washington area. For updates visit www.pupatella.com.

RAMMY Finalists

Congrats and best of luck to restaurants on or near Capitol Hill that’ve been named finalists for the 2023 RAMMY Awards:

• Wine Program of the Year: Shelter (in The Roost)

• Rising Culinary Star: Kat Petonito (The Duck & The Peach, La Collina, The Wells)

• Favorite Gathering Place: Crazy Aunt Helen’s

• Best Brunch: Circa

• Favorite Best Bites: RASA

• Hottest Sandwich Spot: Fight Club, Grazie Grazie

• Casual Restaurant: Bammy’s, Maketto

• Upscale/Casual Restaurant: L’Ardente, Moon Rabbit

• Pastry Chef or Baker: Rochelle Cooper (The Duck & The Peach, La Collina)

• Chef of the Year: Matt Adler (Caruso’s Grocery, in The Roost), Kevin Tien (Moon Rabbit)

• Restaurateur of the Year: Greg Casten and Tony Cibel (Fish and Fire Food Group), Andrew Dana and Daniela Moreira (Timber Pizza, Call Your Mother, Turu’s, Mercy Me)

Winners will be announced at the Awards Gala on July 9 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. For tickets and more information email therammys@ramw.org.