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The Hilton Bros' Latest
January 17, 2014

The Hilton Bros' Latest

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Brothers Eric and Ian Hilton opened their newest establishment last week: El Rey, at 919 U St NW. "It's not a taqueria," Eric is quick to point out. "It's a beer garden that serves tacos."

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Be that as it may, the brothers can't deny the popularity of their tacos. Their biggest challenge so far has been keeping up with demand, selling as many as 2,000 tacos in one night. They've already scaled back their menu, ditching the queso fundido and a few other items that were difficult to prepare quickly. "At this point, speed is of the essence," explains Eric. They went from eight types of tacos to four to five, and are keeping the rest of the menu simple: three types of tamales (which are easy to make ahead), chips, guacamole, and pico de gallo.

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The tacos aren't the only thing that stand out about El Rey. The entire space is made of steel shipping containers. When Eric was in Mexico and the Caribbean, he saw lots of structures built from this material. After a long battle with DCRA, the brothers were able to get approval to build their restaurant out of these sturdy, cheap containers—the first business to do so in DC. In addition to looking cool, Eric estimates the containers cost about one sixth of what traditional brick and mortar would have. (And it can always double as a movie set for a suspenseful chase scene.)

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El Rey officially opened last Friday. It was packed all night, to both the delight and chagrin of the El Rey team, which is still getting the hang of running the new place. "It's a good problem to have," says Eric, "but I should have known better than to open on a Friday."

Foodie Field Trip: The Clifton Inn

Our Foodie Field Trip series features destinations for food lovers that are an easy weekend trip from DC. Now that the holidays are over, mid-winter blues are upon us. For a little getaway, we swung by the historic Clifton Inn, just outside of Charlottesville. The Inn and its grounds once belonged to Martha Jefferson, Thomas' daughter, and is a stone's throw from his Monticello estate.

Lovingly restored to its historic charm, the Inn boasts fireplaces in every common area—including both dining rooms. Chef Tucker Yoder's menus are both modern and familiar, using high-quality local ingredients where possible; his pastry basket brings new meaning to the term "continental breakfast." Patrons can opt for the traditional dining room (complete with grand piano in the corner), the enclosed patio-like area with a view of the grounds, or the private space in the beautiful subterranean wine cellar. After dinner, you can request an outdoor bonfire and bundle up under the stars.

Food-lovers will also appreciate the complimentary afternoon tea service: choose from their curated tea list or opt for coffee to accompany your plate of freshly-baked pastries. And a sweet treat accompanies your evening turn-down service; ours were crunchy gingersnaps. For a more adult nightcap, sip from the complimentary bottle of Madeira wine on the desk in each room. Chef Tucker offers a tasting menu at the chef's table facing the open kitchen, allowing diners to see all of the action. Or, you can sign up for custom-designed cooking class and demonstration, also hosted at the chef's table.

First Movers: Vinoteca

Our First Movers Series profiles restaurant owners who were the first to open a destination-caliber restaurant in now-hot hoods around DC. Today we visit U Street's Vinoteca and owner Paul Carlson.

What was this area like when you first opened?

There were a few great bars and restaurants here already: St. Ex, Solly's, Chicha Lounge, and Local 16. But there really wasn't much else. The Ellington apartments had just opened, and that was the premiere—and only—luxury building in the area. You could feel that the city was changing and this neighborhood wouldn't be far behind. 11th Street, where Vinoteca is, was the border at the time—the only thing east of it that was relevant was 9:30 Club.

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What attracted you to this location?

Paul loved the mix of retail and residences that was already here, and saw a lot of potential in the area: "It was just so different from what I usually pictured when I thought of DC—the more formal K-Street culture." When Paul first moved to DC, he partnered with the Small Business Association to get rolling with his project. He did an assessment with them to measure how many cars and people passed through and lived here. The numbers supported what he wanted to do, so he went for it.

What are your thoughts on the current and future state of the hood?

Paul tells us he's amazed at how much DC has developed as a restaurant city. DC's previous lack of a strong restaurant culture always surprised him given its diverse mix of residents and visitors. But now, it's the rapid pace of change and development that astonishes to him. He doesn't think it's a coincidence that this upsurge coincides with the presence of the Obama administration and the younger, more tech-savvy generation of staffers that came with it. The fact that the first family actually hangs out in this city doesn't hurt either. "It's just a theory, but I do think there has been a new level of excitement in this city since Obama came to town."

Roofers Union Pop Up Preview

Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley (above, left) of Cleveland Park's popular Ripple will be opening a more casual concept called Roofers Union in Adams Morgan at the end of the month. Fans of Marjorie's cooking who want to sneak a taste of Roofers Union can check out her pop up at Ripple next Wednesday and Thursday. The three-course prix fixe menu will offer options like trotter arancini, smokey andouille corndog with whiz, and Boston Crème layer cake. Reservations can be made by calling Ripple.

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Email Alia.Khan@bisnow.com with tips, suggestions, and taco toppings.

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We're a Bunch o' Sexists

How so? Well, because this message is for men only. Ladies, look away. OK, guys, here's the deal. We're having an event this month honoring the Top 40 Women in DC commercial real estate. Everyone is invited, but right now women are dominating ticket sales. What gives, men? You scared? Don't you know the awesome power of women? Are we the only one who watched Disney's Brave? Just being in their presence makes you smarter, faster, and better at archery. You can spend two hours being a king among queens, a prince amongst princesses, a Bush amongst Merkel's. Buy a ticket, or the analogies will keep getting worse. Sign up!

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