Family Dinner

Fine dining veterans Gabriel Sañudo and Esteban Rosas bring culinary precision and their mothers’ know-how to a standout taco shop.
Photo by Tony Valainis

You could see it in the lunchtime broccoli rabe and mushroom torta Esteban Rosas and Gabriel Sañudo cooked up in the pre-pandemic table service at Black Market. You could smell it in the slow-braised lamb birria they piled onto tortillas on the patio later that summer as the Mass Ave institution counted down its last days. And you could feel it in the Con Todo pop-ups the pair staged all over the city as they waited for their dream restaurant to open.

“A lotta love.” It’s a refrain Rosas repeats often. He opened the tiny walk-up Julieta Taco Shop in the recently rejuvenated Stutz Building with fellow chef and friend Sañudo late last summer. Ask him what’s so special about the tacos, tortas, and churros that the duo—both French-trained and with cred from places as diverse as Milktooth, Rook, and Meridian Hills Country Club—serves up, and he’ll insist it’s just their mothers’ recipes, the kind of dishes they grew up on. And, well, doing everything right.

That means sourcing 50-pound bags of heirloom varietal corn from Los Angeles–based Masienda, cooking it using variations that depend on the corn, turning it into fine masa with a volcanic stone grinder, and pressing it into sturdy, crisp-around-the-edges tortillas in a rainbow of hues, all under the eye of Rosas’ mother, Yolanda, who has spent a lifetime perfecting the process. It means enlisting Sañudo’s mother, Blanca, for the custom marinades for all the meats, including the adobo for the pork shoulder skewered for the shop’s signature shaved al pastor tacos. It means having their fathers slice the meat and wipe down the windows.

Photo by Tony Valainis

It also means taking nearly four years from when they were approached by New York–based SomeraRoad, the real estate development firm behind the Stutz Building’s rebirth, to perfect the recipes they first tried out at Black Market. It also took time to get their spartan but colorful 870-square-foot taco shop just how they wanted it, including a late name change that honors Sañudo’s grandmother Julieta, as well as his mother, who has the same middle name. Fine touches overseen by Parallel Design Group include artfully subdued tilework at the counter, funky vintage lighting, and a mural of a skeleton munching a taco in a thicket of cacti and tropical plants. It may surprise other chefs more accustomed to working in sit-down spots, but having just a few stools for tucking away tacos was always the plan.

Good fortune had it that Turner’s, a throwback auto racing–themed watering hole curated by restaurateur Eddie Sahm, was planned for next door, so you can get your victuals through the kitchen window under a flashing neon sign that simply reads, “TACOS.” It’s choreographed yet utterly hip.

Julieta’s pegboard menu of around a half-dozen daily offerings isn’t a compromise but a promise that everything is as good as it can be. That means anyone who’s had real-deal tacos al pastor will recognize the spot-on char and smokiness of the meat shaved from Julieta’s rotating spit. It’s best enjoyed “vampiro-style” with cheese griddled inside the tortilla, a funky touch Sañudo first saw in Mexico City. Along with suadero (a rich, braised brisket–like beef cut), juicy pollo asado, and carnitas tacos, the al pastor is among the shop’s quartet of standards, and it’s tempting to stick with them. But the rice and beans are surprisingly satisfying for being meat-free.

Photo by Tony Valainis

Sañudo and Rosas somehow coax so much flavor from the roasted poblanos, tomatillos, and aromatics in their vegetarian pozole that you will never miss the chicken or pork. And the careful blending of fats with masa makes their tamales almost ethereal in their creaminess, whether studded with poblanos and Swiss chard, stuffed with a slice of just-melting queso fresco in the middle, or topped with citrusy cochinita pibil.

Crispy shrimp, red snapper, and octopus also make occasional appearances in elevated preparations. Churros, the one frequent sweet offering, are golden and light, served with a complex dark chocolate dipping sauce.

For such a small place, Sañudo and Rosas admit it’s a lot more work than they anticipated, and they often prep for the evening using every bit of storage space their kitchen offers. As for franchising the concept, the pair definitely has plans. “But only if we can get it right,” Rosas points out. Sañudo is quick to agree. 1060 N. Capitol Ave.

Julieta Taco Shop

Hours: Tue–Thu 11 a.m.–2 p.m., 3–8 p.m., Fri–Sat 11 a.m.–2 p.m., 3–10 p.m.

Vibe: Walk-up taqueria

Tasting Notes: Mexico City-style tacos and tortas served on handmade tortillas with flavorful house salsas

Neighborhood: The Stutz Building

Must-Order: Tacos al pastor sliced directly from the spit; earthy, rarely seen suadero; and one-off daily dishes such as fluffy tamales, vegetarian pozole, and light, airy churros.