I've yet to eat a better taco on Capitol Hill. The other places? Get out of here. Any place that pulls their tortillas out of a bag before serving them to you is automatically disqualified from consideration (and that's most places). Last year, I spent a week in Mexico City, trying and failing to find a taco as good as the ones at Carmelo's. (The family behind Carmelo's Tacos is from an area just south of Mexico City.)
But also, it must be said, Carmelo's has its limitations: You want chips and salsa? They don't have that. You want a side of guacamole? You're going to have to go somewhere else. You want a margarita? They don't have time for your requests here. Have you seen the line?
It used to be that customers lined up at Carmelo's counter inside Hillcrest Market, sometimes snaking all the way down the chips-and-protein-bars aisle to the cold sodas on the back wall. When I visited with friends, I would crack that the taco place was going to overtake the mini-mart eventually, that this whole building would be Carmelo's Tacos soon enough.
That's... not wildly off from what's happening. Now, at most times of day, customers have to line up at the window outside, to accommodate everyone and their dogs, and in addition to the DIY seating area inside (narrow counters and some stools with a view of paper towels in packages), there are two picnic tables outside.
More importantly, the menu has gotten twice as long. It used to be there were only four things you could order, and they were kinds of tacos: al pastor (pork), asada (steak), campechano (chorizo, steak, and potato), and veggie (potato and cactus). Soon enough, they added a vegan option, which had more veggies in it, including mushrooms.
Now the menu offers all of the above options stuffed into burritos and quesadillas as well. Granted, the burritos have rice in them—my pet peeve (it's like eating a bread sandwich, or ravioli stuffed with Cheerios)—but everything's made to order and they are happy to leave the rice out. I had a campechano burrito ($8.50) for lunch yesterday, which comes with a side of mildly-hot salsa roja, and sat in the shade of the building (it's shady for lunch, and sunny at dinnertime), drinking a Topo Chico and livening up the pinto beans in the burrito with salsa roja, feeling content and, afterwards, full. The burrito did not fall apart in my hands, the way burritos at other places do.
But you know what's really, really good? Like, extra good? Like, "Oh my god, please serve this at my funeral" good? The campechano quesadilla. I know, I know—it's really hard to mess up a quesadilla. All quesadillas are glorious. On the night that the photo at the top of this post was taken, I had just lifted weights and I needed some stuff in my belly, and I hadn't tried any of the newer menu items yet, and I asked Miguel Cruz—who is the son of Carmelo, and who joked that the reason there was such a line was because of that piece in The Stranger from last year—what kind of quesadilla I should try, and he said, "Quesadilla campechano."
He did not lead me astray. Yes, the campechano has, along with the chorizo and steak, bits of potato in it, which arguably violates my carb-on-carb rule, but on the other hand it was the perfect filling for the cheesy decadence of a quesadilla. It cost less than $10, it was something I never would be able to make at home, it did not fall apart on me, and every bite of it was perfection. I wish I were eating one right now.
The quesadilla campechano comes with a side of salsa verde with avocado. (Just a little avocado, mixed in.) In the event of my demise, if Carmelo's Tacos does cater my funeral, please make sure they whip up lots of extra salsa verde with avocado and pour it directly into my coffin.
Carmelo's Tacos is open for lunch and dinner every day except Sunday, when they are only open for dinner.