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Review | At D.C.’s best new Mexican restaurant, the cooking will thrill you

One of many reasons you owe yourself the favor of a meal at Amparo Fondita is the thought the chef pours into every detail of his new restaurant in Dupont Circle.

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Half the reason his tacos are the best by miles are their wrappers. Christian Irabién, a native of Chihuahua, Mexico, whose previous work you might have admired at Muchas Gracias and Oyamel in Washington, buys his corn — yellow, blue and red — from Oaxaca, which he grinds on a stone mill and nixtamalizes before turning the dough into awesome tortillas on a hand press.

The other explanation for the appeal of his tacos, which come three per enticing order, are the fillings. I thought the prize was a fat finger of flounder cooked on the plancha and garnished with shredded purple cabbage and mayonnaise shot through with fruity guajillo chiles until I tried the lamb braised in chiles, garlic, onion and Oaxacan chocolate — a mole — and swaddled in a toasted banana leaf en route to stuffing a tortilla. Then, on my most recent visit, I homed in on the masa-crusted scallops I spotted on a lengthy list of specials and wondered why they weren’t always available. So good!

The lesson? Maybe I should just stop looking for a single best taco and declare an eight-way tie among those on the list.

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For his latest act, Irabién is channeling a grandfather, born in Yucatán, and a grandmother, a native of Veracruz, who as a couple relocated to Texas and opened a Mexican restaurant in El Paso, where Irabién washed dishes, bused tables and delivered food starting when he was 14. Amparo Fondita plays up his grandparents’ coastal roots more than their eventual restaurant, which taught him a work ethic but wasn’t exactly a role model. (The family got their seafood where they could, like Sam’s Club.)

The restaurant is also a valentine to his mother, whose name is Amparo, the Spanish word for “shelter,” and a reference to the small neighborhood Mexican eateries where locals might pick up tortillas or beans for that day’s meal at home. A few shelves of staples used by the restaurant — dried chiles, Mexican sea salt and chocolate — inspire home cooks (and demonstrate the canyon-size difference in quality from Goya).

By appearances, you wouldn’t know the 55-seat dining room, formerly the home of the dear Pesce, served Mexican food. The design is simple. Blond wood tables and floors, bathed in sunlight, lead to bench-style, avocado-colored seating and a visible kitchen with some round mirrors in the rear. One of the few suggestions there might be margaritas and pozole in your future is a bit of see-through tile near the entrance and cactuses throughout the interior.

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A cold day calls for pozole — so does a bad day and a good day and anything in between, at least the way Irabién makes this brick-colored, hominy-crammed soup. The broth alone — a concert of rich pork stock, guajillo and sweet Mexican oregano — tastes like some revitalizing tonic. Add in shredded braised pork, and it takes on Schwarzeneggerian swagger. The bowl, topped with a fan of creamy avocado, comes with party favors including airy pork rinds, lime wedges and green pico de gallo, and if you order pozole at lunch, you’re apt to reconsider your plans for dinner. It’s a lot of food, and a lot of flavor.

The lighter introduction to Amparo Fondita is the ceviche, as beautiful as the pozole is bodacious. Curls of fluke nestle with thin slices of persimmon (now beet), refreshing melon and cucumber in a clear yellow broth stinging with serrano. Pair it with a glass of light-bodied Mexican sauvignon blanc, bright with citrus notes.

One of Irabién’s go-to meals has become mine: a bouquet of a dozen blue and white prawns from Louisiana arranged on the rim of a silver bowl of sauce and presented in a second bowl of crushed ice. A tray of perks — saltines, a fruity and creamy Yucatán-style dip, hot sauce in what looks like an eye dropper — ups the fun. If there’s a more joyful shrimp cocktail in town, please point me in its direction. (The chef prefers the catch from the Gulf of Mexico for its sweet flavor.)

The Washington area has good Mexican food at all price levels. Amparo Fondita distinguishes itself from the lot with dishes that reflect not just the tried and true, well done, but the evolving nature of the cuisine of a country with more than 128 million people. This is food that wakes you up and makes you pay attention. Take the outsize sweet potato, big enough to qualify as a main course. Baked, then roasted over charcoal, the blistered behemoth is split and freckled with chiltates — a mix of toasted sunflower, sesame, pumpkin and other seeds hit with chile de arbol — and staged with a trio of enhancers: Oaxacan salt, fermented black garlic and marrow butter (or olive oil for vegetarians). While there are tortillas for wrapping, I prefer to eat my sweet potato right out of its skin.

The kitchen offers several large plates at dinner, including a whole grilled red snapper splayed over a little treasure of squash rings and turnips and accessorized with pearly rice, tortillas and soulful beans. In an artful touch, the waste-nothing chef finishes the plate with tortilla ash. What a catch.

The sides are stars. I’m especially fond of the black turtle beans, sourced from the pedigreed Rancho Gordo in Napa and seasoned with both avocado and bay leaves. Irabién finishes the black surface with powdered avocado leaf for earthiness and hue and toasted chile oil for sheen and a hint of smoke.

This restaurant anticipates needs. Without asking, two of you might have the generous pozole split in separate bowls, and if you hesitate come dessert, a waiter might steer you to his pick and suggest you share it. Give in. Amparo Fondita makes a swoon-worthy, spoonable tres leches cake that’s not too sweet and festooned with beautiful fruit and marigold petals on a cloud of whipped cream. No matter how full you are, you find yourself finishing it. The coffee, from District roaster 1790 Coffee, is exceptional, too, with pronounced chocolate and caramel notes.

The chef also operates a ghost kitchen out of the restaurant, Tacos El Gabacho, which was on pause when I dined there but is expected to restart soon with less fussy and more accessible takes on some of what Amparo Fondita serves. The tortillas, for instance, won’t be individually hand-pressed.

Irabién says his restaurant “will be somebody’s first introduction to Mexican food,” and he wants to leave novices with maybe a desire to cook at home and definitely a wish to return. This isn’t my first rodeo with the cuisine, not by a long shot. But this neighborly newcomer manages to present the food of his mother country in ways that are so evocative and thrilling, even veterans feel as if they’re onto something fresh.

2002 P St. NW. 202-621-8166. Open for indoor dining, delivery and takeout noon to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Prices: appetizers $12 to $32, tacos $18 to $22, main courses $23 to $67 (shareable lamb dinner). Sound check: 75 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Three steps lead from the entrance to the dining room and there are also stairs to the restrooms, but removable ramps are available for diners who call ahead.

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