It is time to toss to the side those sweats, pajamas, and athleisure wear. It is the time to go out for an evening of fine dining.

dLeña Wood-Fire Mexican Cocina & Mezcaleria is a welcomed addition to the Washington, D.C. dining scene that will give you more than enough reasons to dress up and leave home for a meal you will not soon forget. The restaurant is in the Mt. Vernon Triangle area at the corner of 5th and K Streets, NW.

dLeña is not a Mexican restaurant where a basket of tortilla chips and a bowl of salsa will be plopped down on your table. Diners will be welcomed into an environment where you savor food accented by a wood-burning preparation for many items on the menu. The cuisine is based on foods and flavors from the Oaxaca state of Mexico. For now, the restaurant is open only for dinner.

Tastes to Expand Your Palate

“We are taking an elevated approach to Mexican cuisine. Time is given to execute dishes, keeping traditional flavors,” said Chef Carlos Camacho. “We want guests to have a unique moment to remember for a long period of time.”

On a visit to dLeña, our meal started with non-alcoholic hibiscus water called “Hibiscus Agua Fresca” to cleanse the palate. We were served a pork belly dish with chipotle glaze and a red guajillo pipian sauce. A fresh salad and a variety of pickled vegetables came with this dish. We were then floored by “Zarandeado,” a gorgeous seafood dish of butterflied whole branzino fish with a charred marinade. This dish came with a grilled avocado half topped with a crunchy corn salsa and a small side of spicy coleslaw. Our vegetable was charred cauliflower “Colifor a la Leña” with chimichurri and more of the red guajillo pipian sauce. I will admit to not being a big fan of cauliflower, but I was won over by this flame-cooked approach to this vegetable.

Guests to dLeña will immediately be welcomed like family by the restaurant team. That sense of “family” carries over to some of the menu items. “Camarónes a la Diabla” is a shrimp dish from Camacho’s family. “Pastel de Elote” is a corn cake from Richard Sandoval’s family. Sandoval heads Richard Sandoval Hospitality, the restaurant/hospitality group which dLeña is under. Guests can also count on a few signature dLeña drinks including unique margaritas and other cocktails surrounded by smoke.

Camacho has trained the restaurant team from what he calls his “Menu Bible.” The book contains preparation steps for each menu item. General Manager Josh Gray stays on top of recipes with his smaller size version of the “Menu Bible” he keeps in his pocket. The most appealing aspect about dLeña’s menu is the variety that appeals to a range of tastes.

Joining an Existing Restaurant Group

Formal opening for dLeña was May 7, 2021. From that day and through May 15, 2021, partial proceeds will be donated to “Dreams for Kids DC,” a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering children with physical and developmental disabilities.

dLeña is one of six restaurants in the District of Columbia and Virginia under Richard Sandoval Hospitality. The concept for dLeña is the first of its kind in the group’s family of restaurants. According to General Manager Josh Gray, it has been a challenge to open dLeña. The restaurant was scheduled to open last Spring.

“It was a project underway for two years,” said Gray. “We had to figure out our timeline to make sure we were adhering to everything we needed to do to make sure we would open up safely and effectively.” Gray also admits that hiring enough staff has been another big challenge. That is a similar story for other restaurants nationwide.

dLeña follows strict social distancing requirements for occupancy and sanitization. There are handwashing and sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant. Staff requires daily temperature log-in checks. Staff is also checked for symptoms and whether they have been in contact with anyone diagnosed with the coronavirus.

Appealing Inside and Outside

The interior design and ambience of dLeña have guests immediately feeling comfortable. Sawed tree trunk rounds adorn the walls, but in no way does it feel woodsy. Sit- ting at the cocktail bar towards the rear of dLeña, guests have a clear view of food being cooked at the wood-burning grill. Each table on the front patio has a solar-lit umbrella which is perfect for evening meals. There is also a private dining area inside the restaurant that can be reserved for groups. A lounge on the lower level will open in a few months as city occupancy standards evolve. dLeña is now open for reservations through the OpenTable app.

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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