WASHINGTON — So, a Texas senator and a dozen conservative congressmen walk into a bar, and … what? Some shutdown strategizing over a late-night dinner?
No one’s sharing what transpired between Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and the House Republicans who met at a D.C. watering hole on the sly very late Monday. The punch line, when news broke of the supposedly secret meeting, was simply the name of the bar: Tortilla Coast.
A low-budget Capitol Hill institution for 25 years, the restaurant quickly found itself the butt of every joke in an otherwise humorless week in Washington.
“I just hope the solution to this problem ultimately is known as the ‘Tortilla Coast Accords,’ ” snickered Willie Geist on the MSNBC political gabfest “Morning Joe.”
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“Ted Cruz and his Tortilla Coast Republicans are leading us to a default,” an unnamed GOP Senate aide told Talking Points Memo.
Social-media wits LOL’ed over the name after Roll Call reported the meeting, which House leadership learned about only because Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., happened to dine at the Tex-Mex hangout that night, too.
There were riffs on “running for the border,” “the coast is clear,” the irony of immigration foes enjoying Latin-flavored cuisine and the hilarity of high-level talks going down in a place with a name just stinking of suburban strip-mall kitsch.
Tortilla Coast! That’s where members of Congress go? Yes. Push past the beer-drinking interns making a meal of free chips and salsa, and you’ll find the unlikeliest power hub in town, one of the capital’s seven-busiest venues for political fundraisers, according to the Sunlight Foundation, along with the white-tablecloth likes of Charlie Palmer Steak and Bistro Bis.
Campaign-finance reports show that in the 2011-12 cycle, House campaigns spent $208,753.42 on events at Tortilla Coast, where entrees top out at $14.95.
“It’s the only place that’s beyond convenient,” said GOP fundraiser Lisa Spies, noting its location three blocks from the U.S. Capitol and one block from the Cannon House Office Building, possibly the absolute closest restaurant to those seats of power.
“People were rumbling that ‘Oh, it’s a secret meeting.’ You don’t have a secret meeting at Tortilla Coast! It leads people outside Washington to think they went to some hole-in-the-wall that no one knows about. Everyone goes there,” Spies said.
It’s definitely not for the ambience. At Tortilla Coast, the windows are bedecked with decals promising “MARGARITAS” and “BBQ RIBS”; inside are worn vinyl booths, neon beer signs, murals of leaping fish on walls of deep red and acid green.
And then there’s where Cruz & Co. met. Tortilla Coast’s “Rio Room” is a windowless, low-ceilinged basement space of perhaps 400 square feet.
Last week, said general manager Bil Anderson, the room was booked for breakfast every morning. What’s the appeal? “Maybe,” he speculated, it’s “if you don’t want to look like you’re showing off.”
Restaurant management wouldn’t say much about Monday’s “secret” meeting, other than that it was scheduled on relatively short notice and “it wasn’t so secretive,” said Deborah Topcik, marketing director at Clover Investment Group, which owns the restaurant. “It was just a place to meet in.”