When Holly Levanto saw a post on Facebook asking for someone to drive taxidermied animals from Texas to Washington, D.C., she phoned her parents.
Levanto, who was born and raised in Austin, has spent the last sixteen years in the D.C. area, where she works as a defense consultant. In that time, she’s hunted high and low for true Texas cuisine. She finally found what she was looking for—kolaches, specifically—at a series of weekend pop-ups organized by Chris Svetlik.
So, in 2019, when Svetlik needed a long-haul favor for his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Republic Cantina, Levanto didn’t hesitate to enlist her folks. “My parents, who are retirees, two Austinites with their Tesla, good Southern Baptists, met with someone in Chris’s family and packed up the car with antlers and taxidermy and drove that up,” Levanto says.
Since the Tex-Mex joint opened its doors three years ago, Svetlik has delivered things Washington had been without: kolaches, migas, and honest-to-goodness breakfast tacos in house-made flour tortillas. It made him something of an ambassador for the state. And over the past two years, two other restaurants—2Fifty Texas BBQ and La Tejana—have proved he’s not alone in representing the Lone Star State inside the Beltway. To further add to the delegation, Svetlik opened his new venture, Hill East Burger—yes, HEB—in October.
“I think what really appeals to our customers is a sense of place, a sense of home, a reminder of where you come from,” Svetlik says.
Svetlik, who grew up in Spring, a suburb of Houston, came to the District to study international economics at Georgetown University. His first food-related project started as a side hustle with another Texan, his friend Brian Stanford, an attorney for NASA. Svetlik’s family on his father’s side is Czech, and he felt particularly nostalgic about the kolaches his family made together at Christmas. The pair decided to start baking. It was “a fun project with no real end goal,” Svetlik says, “at most maybe [selling at] a farmers’ market or something.”
When Republic Kolache held its first event in 2015, Svetlik says, “Texans in D.C. kind of collectively lost their minds.” One popular kolache was the “L. B. Johnson,” which was stuffed with cheddar, Shiner-brined jalapeño relish, and a sausage known as a half-smoke, made by D.C. eatery Meats & Foods. His Saturday morning pop-ups included country and western music, metal trays with illustrated liners, and a neon sign of the Daniel Johnston lyric “True Love Will Find You in the End.”
“He created such a great atmosphere,” Levanto says.
Svetlik continued the good vibes at Republic Cantina, which serves seven types of breakfast tacos as well as a dinner menu with poblano chicken enchiladas, green pork pozole, and chicken-fried chicken with creamy pepper gravy. (Svetlik shuttered the kolache operation in November 2020.)
Eight months after Republic Cantina opened, the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns arrived, and the restaurant made the transition to offering takeout, which turned out to be a benefit. Following a long construction, and beset by staffing problems, Republic was “hemorrhaging money,” Svetlik says. With more experience doing events than table service, Svetlik found his footing delivering breakfast tacos and fajita meal kits.
Ana-Maria Jaramillo and Gus May hosted just three pop-ups for their business, La Tejana, before the pandemic. They hosted many dozens more events over the months of uncertainty, cultivating a following and serving long lines of fans who sometimes braved freezing weather for their food. Their spare, sunny brick-and-mortar, which opened in D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood this August, serves six kinds of breakfast tacos that all sell out daily, among them the 956—named after the area code serving McAllen, where Jaramillo spent part of her childhood—which features eggs, bacon, refried beans, fried potatoes, and a queso drizzle.
“Some of these people have never had a breakfast taco in their life,” Jaramillo says. “People are like, ‘I’m from Arizona. I’ve had tacos in Arizona and New Mexico, but I’ve never had a Tex-Mex breakfast taco. My world is forever changed.’ ”
May, who grew up just outside the District, had never had breakfast tacos either before meeting Jaramillo at a wedding and traveling with her to Texas. The two started dating shortly after. Her career as a pediatric bilingual speech-language pathologist was flourishing, while May was bouncing around the food-service industry. Jaramillo says she gave him an ultimatum to get his act together.
May settled on perfecting the art of the flour tortilla, and the two decided to bring their Rio Grande Valley–inspired fare to Washington. The couple married this April, the day before construction started on their storefront.
Fernando González found his calling the first time he tried a signature Texas dish, too. At the time, in 2017, he and his wife, Debby Portillo, were running a company in El Salvador shipping tamales, queso, pupusas, and other foodstuffs to the U.S. During a stop in Austin for business, González tried Franklin Barbecue, and an obsession for barbecue overtook him.
“When he came back, he said, ‘I want to build a smokehouse in El Salvador,’ like he was crazy,” Portillo says. “ ‘What happened to you in Texas?’ He was like, ‘This is what we’re going to do for the rest of our lives.’ ”
A civil engineer by training, González built his first offset smoker using an old propane tank. Teaching Salvadorans about Texas barbecue was an uphill battle: Portillo says the couple’s customers would ask if the meat was burnt. Once Americans working at the local U.S. embassy learned about the venture, however, González found his fan base.
When González and Portillo decided to move to the U.S., they picked suburban D.C. because there weren’t any Texas-style barbecue restaurants in the area. In fact, 2Fifty boasts the first permitted offset smoker in Maryland’s Prince George’s County. The D.C. region is also home to the nation’s second-largest Salvadoran population, so locals are right at home with 2Fifty’s spin on meats and sides.
“How the pitmaster is fusing Salvadoran culture with it, like making plátanos fritos, chimole, frijoles negros, it pushes that Texas barbecue in a different direction,” says Kimberly Benavides, a customer and D.C. public-school teacher.
Portillo describes González as a student of Texas traditions. Indeed, he sounds starstruck as he describes attending a brisket class at Goldee’s Barbecue, in Fort Worth, in July and seeing Wayne Mueller, of Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor, taking a seat as a fellow student. Ball caps from Snow’s, Heritage, and a couple dozen other Texas barbecue joints hang over the cash register at 2Fifty.
“As immigrants, we want to play our part in preserving this American tradition,” González says. “I fell in love with barbecue not because of the amazing barbecue platters I was enjoying in Texas—I fell in love with barbecue because of the culture around barbecue.”
Despite opening a month into the pandemic, in April 2020, 2Fifty debuted at number one on the Washington Post’s best-of list for barbecue in the region that year.
These restaurants sometimes join forces: La Tejana and 2Fifty hosted their first smoked-breakfast collaboration in September. The highlight was the 512, a breakfast taco featuring scrambled eggs and chopped smoked brisket with queso on a flour tortilla. They are also expanding their footprints: La Tejana hopes to launch a second spot in northeast D.C., and 2Fifty, which opened a stall in Union Market in June 2021, is also scouting for a stand-alone location in the District.
Customers unfamiliar with Texas cuisine are often confused by the fact that La Tejana doesn’t serve corn tortillas (they’re on the way) and by the cost—and size—of the beef ribs at 2Fifty. Native Texans, on the other hand, can be unyielding when it comes to their interpretations of authenticity. Svetlik says he gets complaints when he deviates too far from tradition, like by not including rice and beans with his enchiladas, for example, or by serving a klobasnek stuffed with saag paneer.
“People will nitpick reasons why this doesn’t meet their standards,” Svetlik says. “I think some of that is just inherent in the pride that Texans have for their food. The best compliment you can get from someone is how this reminds them of how it’s done at home.”