They've been considered a delicacy in Oaxaca for centuries, a toasted snack that can be tucked into tortillas or tossed back like bar nuts. They've been singled out as a sustainable protein in a world where livestock production is amajor contributor to greenhouse gases. They've even been said to have "an incredible combination of flavors" despite their tiny size.
And yet grasshoppers are still largely treated as a novelty, maybe even a dare, by many American diners.
Oyamel has sold grasshopper tacos (otherwise known as tacos de chapulines) since the mid-2000s and has remained the sole provider of the snack in Washington for more than a decade, probably due to a lack of demand and the difficulty of sourcing the insects. But José Andrés's Penn Quarter restaurant now has some competition for your grasshopper dining dollar: Lezo's Taqueriain Mt. Pleasant started peddling tacos de chapulines in May.
Lezo's was opened last year by Rosa Arroyo and her son, Andrew Gonzalez. If those names sound familiar, it's because they were two of the three family members responsible for the famous (infamous?) Taqueria Juquilita, the former taco speakeasy in Columbia Heights. The patriarch of the family, Onesimo Gonzalez, died in 2013, and his wife and son decided that, as an homage, they would realize his dream of opening a legitimate restaurant, fully inspected and licensed.
Lezo's is the result. It's a small, sun-dappled spot with a handful of tables and a taste for the authentic dishes of Oaxaca, the family's ancestral home. Lezo's serves not only grasshopper tacos, but also tlayudas, the Oaxacan street snack often referred to as "Mexican pizza."
Both dishes are hard to find in the District (tlayudas are available at Espita in Shaw, too), but it's the grasshopper taco that continues to fascinate the generally conservative D.C. dining community more than a decade after it was introduced in the District.
The hard part is sourcing the insects. "I physically have to go to Mexico and get them," Gonzalez says.
He flew to Oaxaca in May with three empty suitcases to pick up grasshoppers and other regional products, even his grandmother's homemade red mole, which includes more than 30 ingredients. Didn't U.S. Customs give him a hard time when Gonzalez informed the agency he had a suitcase full of previously cooked bugs?
"It was the first time I went," he says. "They didn't give me any issue."
The tacos de chapulines at Lezo's may even be better than the ones at Oyamel. The medium-sized grasshoppers are boiled and toasted before they leave Mexico. Arroyo seasons and reheats the insects before piling them into a toasted house-made tortilla with chopped onions and cilantro. The grasshoppers have a pronounced saltiness and a supernatural crunch. I also detected the sour, stinging presence of lime, but Gonzalez tells me the kitchen adds no such citrus. That duty must be handled by the customer with an accompanying lime wedge.
The grasshoppers, to my mind, need no extra squirts of lime, but I did experiment with the nuclear salsas available at the table. I ran out of grasshopper taco before I ran out of possible salsa combinations. The salsas, I must confess, went a long way toward easing me into a difficult psychological space: the place where I feel 100 percent comfortable sticking bugs in my mouth.
Lezo's Taqueria, 3213 Mt. Pleasant St. NW. 202-265-0243. Grasshopper tacos are $4 each.