Bright, comforting and traditional dishes at Don Lencho
Words by Stefanie Gans Photos by Aaron Spicer
What would fermented pineapple taste like? In an age of Mason jar chic, kale kimchi and pickled snap peas, making an almost-alcoholic drink from pineapple isn’t what sells at the more-local-than-thou farmers markets. But in a restaurant in Manassas, where local translates to home-style Mexican cooking, fermented pineapple skin sits with brown sugar in water for a month before it becomes tepache. (Allowed to sit longer, the sugars break down and turn the liquid into booze, or chicha.) A whole chicken marinates in tapache, mixed with red wine, olives and capers. The resulting dish, gallo en chicha, is chunks of bone-in chicken served in the tepache gravy.
It’s like eating sunshine.
There’s a side of thick tortillas, fluffy rice and the silkiest of refried beans, but it doesn’t matter because the focus is the sauce: bright, juicy even, savory and salty. It’s an awakening in Don Lencho, a low-lit rectangle of a restaurant in a forgotten strip mall, a block behind Centreville Road.
Owner and chef Ronolado Juárez spends weekdays at his Arlington restaurant Guajilo and weekends in Manassas. His wife, also a chef, works mostly at their D.C. restaurant Casa Oaxaca. For Don Lencho, Juárez says he combined dishes from his other restaurants (competitive eaters might recognize El Cachudo burrito challenge: finish the 18-inch, 6-pound monster and the restaurant pays), plus recipes he’s wanted to bring stateside.
One such dish is his beet salad—learned from a chef in Oaxaca—which accompanies many of the entrees. Not paired with blue, feta or goat cheese, it feels revelatory if only because it proves the root vegetable can do just fine without the help of strong dairy. Instead, the beets’ magenta facade rubs onto diced jimica for a visually monochrome salad that tastes just the opposite: bites varied with crunch, sweetness and citrus.
Born in El Salvador, with a childhood in Mexico City and a brief stint in Los Angeles, Juárez landed in Arlington at nine years old. His stepfather, from Mexico, started a food truck here in the early 1980s, when, says Juárez, “you did it to survive, not because you were following a trend.” The truck failed and his stepfather opened a Mexican restaurant on Columbia Pike. At 16, Juárez, now 44, started in the kitchen making tacos. In 2000, he opened his own restaurant, Guajilo. Six years later: Casa Oaxaca. Don Lencho opened in February. “As soon as Don Lencho starts producing,” says Juárez, he wants to open a taco house in Arlington. “The idea is in the back of my head. It’s not going away.”
Until then, there’s tacoanzo, a platter of five traditional tacos picked by the kitchen. There’s the classic al pastor, pork shoulder mingling with grilled pineapple in double-layered charred corn tortillas. Breaded fish strips pair with pickled cabbage and a smoky-sweet sauce in another taco; there’s also a lovely braised lamb, cushy beef tongue and a well-seasoned carne asada. A pile of pickled carrots garnishes the plate, but unlike curly parsley, it should not be avoided.
One night our group used the tacos as starters, but that’s not the only way to begin a meal. Uchepos, sweet corn tamales, trumps cornbread pudding. It’s cakey and fritter-like, sweet but savory with anise, and creamy—I wish I could buy these as easily as a Twinkie.
The weekend specials are where it’s at, and the cooking is best when Juárez is in the kitchen. The service, though, can suffer any day of the week, lacking finesse (tacos were set down without explanation of which were which) and basic etiquette (diners sat at tables still dirty from previous guests and served food without silverware present).
But it’s still worth a visit, especially with an affordable tasting menu. At $19.95, a stream of dishes starts with posole rojo, a soup with pork and hominy in a deep broth red with fiery chilies—and ends with crunchy churros. The main plate revealed many stars: a single anchovy tostado, something Juárez says cab drivers and locals eat in Mexico and a funky, spicy lamb sausage roll that feeds like a quesadilla. But some dishes on the plate fizzled: a mini enchilada filled with pumpkin more resembles Thanksgiving dessert than dinner and a duck enchilada topped with a mole is so chocolaty it picks up on the harsh, bitter notes.
There’s also that deceptively good rice; the trick: Juárez fries the grains for 20 minutes before boiling. The refried black beans, smooth and thick as a mud mask, are double-fried to mimic the perpetually two-day old black beans that Juárez grew up on in Mexico.
His stepfather told him the secret to Mexican food is the salsas, and Juárez listened. Brought to the table with thin, crispy chips, it’s born from roasted tomatoes, habenero, onion and garlic. “It’s nothing fancy,” he says, “nothing out of this world.” Creamed with an immersion blender, it arrives warm and silky. And for a second, maybe we’re not out of this world, but we’re surely not in Manassas.
Weekends feature specials like rabbit ceviche, but every day, you should indulge in the crispy churros.
Appetizers: $2.50–$9.50; Entrees: $8.95–$17
Lunch and dinner daily; brunch on the weekend.
9116 Mathis Ave., Manassas