Like Black Rooster's John Calloway and Hunger Street's Joe and David Creech, Ryan Manning is a gringo chef with a passion for Mexican culture and cuisine, tacos especially. His purist, somewhat staunch, ethic came as a result of working as chef de cuisine at the Ritz-Carlton in one of the most un-Mexican places in Mexico – Cancun. But he frequently ventured away from that tourist hotbed to explore his love for Mexican cuisine and all its celebrated regional variants.
He shares those experiences at MX Taco – a modest Milk District taco stand where rubbing shoulders with fellow taco fiends is as sure a bet as meat juice dribbling down your chin. It's got a great vibe – a vibe that Manning, a ginger-haired chef with boyish looks, has managed to make feel, dare I say, wholly "authentic." He may have the outward appearance of a young Boris Becker but, inside, Manning's as Mexican as Pancho Villa.
After moving on to the Ritz-Carlton in D.C. after his Cancun stint, Manning scored an invite to stage a Cinco de Mayo pop-up of MX Taco at the Mexican Embassy. At. The. Mexican. Embassy. So, yeah, the man's got some cred. And, no, he's not making his own tortillas inside this wee taqueria.
"When I was living and working in Mexico, I realized the best taco places brought in their tortillas from a tortilleria," says Manning and that's precisely what he's doing. He'd rather not disclose the name of the tortilleria, but don't go looking for it. It's not in Florida. "The place I'm sourcing from brings their corn in from Mexico, so it's hard to get into their network because the corn is in short supply."
What it all amounts to is a shell that's thick, airy, soft and not in any way conducive for takeout. Wet drippings from such Yucatecan classics as steak with sikil pak (a sauce made from roasted pumpkin seeds, citrus and tomatoes) and cochinita pibil (pulled pork and bitter orange) will quickly disintegrate the shell. So enjoy your $3 tacos there, and eat them in four bites (or less), because enjoy them you will. A shrimp tikin xic marinated in achiote and bitter orange had me hoping tikin xic with snapper would make its way onto the menu one day.
Favorites among the seven tacos offered: the Michoacán carnitas with confit pulled pork and Pueblan chicken mole poblano draped in crema, cotija cheese and sesame seeds. From Oaxaca comes a deceptively filling and earthy veg taco with sweet potato, beans and a mix of crimini, clamshell and button mushrooms. It's topped with cotija, pickled onions and salsa mole. A Sonoran barbacoa-style steak with guajillo-ancho pepper sauce and avocado crema round out the tacos. Tacos al pastor are offered as a special Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m. and, yes, the achiote-marinated pork is shaved off an electric trompo.
Two quesadillas ($3), one with Oaxacan cheese and chipotle crema and the other with Oaxacan cheese and chorizo, spotlight Mexico City. We quite liked the latter, even more so when splashed with house habañero sauce (less fiery arbol and guajillo are also offered). Aguas frescas ($3), like watermelon and cinnamony horchata, also make a splash – but the true refresher came in the form of avocado ice cream ($4) tricked out with candied pumpkin seed, Mexican chocolate and chili-spiced coconut flakes.
And so the sophistication of our taco scene continues. No, we're not Mexico City or L.A. or, hell, even Miami yet, but joints like Black Rooster, Hunger Street and MX Taco only serve to get us closer, bit by drippy bit, and have us hungering for more. You can give our taco-crazed community an inch, but what we really want is a mile.