Some people are scornful of upscale Mexican food, maintaining that it defies tradition, and that the best variations are the simplest. And while I see no reason why Mexican can't occupy a tack on the gourmet map too, I do concede that there's a significant difference between a cherished $1.50 taco from La Bonita and DF's (pronounced "day-efay," short for Districto Federal, a nickname for Mexico City) $17 tesmole, a simmering stew of oxtails, vegetables, green chiles, hoja santa (also known as the "root beer plant"), and Bohemia Beer. They're really not the same thing at all, barely even in the same ballpark, and anyone who thinks that because they love the carne asada burrito at Cha Cha Cha they can treat their date to a fancy meal at DF and be sure to love it, has another thing coming. DF doesn't even serve burritos.
Oxtails, for the uninitiated, are not literally the tails of oxen, but pieces of rather fatty meat from around the poor beast's spine. Why anyone ever thought it would be a good idea to devour flesh that rests directly above the anal canal escapes me, but the results can be buttery and savory, or they can stick to the back of your throat like the chunks of butt-lard they are. DF's oxtails, alas, fall into the latter category, a fact not alleviated by the bland broth in which they reside, or their accompanying wedge of ox spine.
Spine meat aside, though, DF does some things right, as one would hope would be the case, seeing as how the place is run by the folks behind NE 28th's lovely Taqueria Nueve. All the seafood dishes we tried were excellent, particularly the ceviche rojo, a blend of extremely fresh raw fish and prawns marinated in lime juice, coated in a smoky tomato sauce, and dug out of the bowl with crunchy tortilla chips. Ceviche hardcores don't need any seasoning on their sea life besides the lime, but I found the sauce delectable and continued to slurp it down like salsa long after all the fish was gone. Equally good were DF's smoked fish tacos (pescado ahumado) with crema and salsa, and at a relatively cheap $3, they're probably the best deal on the menu.
Like any respectable Pearl District dining spot, DF has all the amenities, including a full bar with original drink specials like the Bloody Maria (a homemade mary mix with tequila, lime and orange juice), and a quite pleasant Sunday brunch service, when the restaurant's cylindrical windows wash the interior with daylight and the view of Lovejoy's streetcar tracks is in full effect. Brunch has plenty of ceviche on hand, a mean li'l plate of heuvos, and Stumptown coffee. These elements don't mesh nearly as disastrously as you might expect. In fact, they're rather nice.
It's hard to flat-out recommend DF—its cuisine is just too hit and miss—but it holds a soft spot in my heart. Tucked away on the outskirts of the loathed Pearl, it feels like a yuppified outsider, with a design that's sleek and modern without being too full of itself and tenderly prepared food that's still figuring itself out. Meeting my beloved there, we weren't prepared for how deeply embedded down NW 11th DF was. But when we finally arrived at our destination, we didn't regret expending the effort getting there.