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Come thirsty, not hungry, to Mike Isabella’s Pepita Canteen

With fewer than 40 inside seats, Pepita Cantina in Arlington is small, but large windows lend an airy ambiance. A patio provides extra outdoor space for diners. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The kitchen at Pepita Cantina is small. The bar at the latest offering from Mike Isabella stocks more than 100 tequilas and mezcals.

Liquids are the focus at the spirited eatery just around the corner from Isabella’s smooth-sailing Kapnos Taverna in Arlington’s Ballston neighborhood. Part of that is explained by the size of the place, which has fewer than 40 inside seats. And part of that has to do with Isabella’s partner in Pepita, Taha Ismail, also the beverage director for all of the top chef’s restaurants.

“Where’s the food?” a friend asks as he fumbles with the four-ply paper menu, most of which is devoted to punch, tiki drinks, juleps and nearly 30 classic cocktails, from Aviation to Vieux Carré.

“We didn’t want to be known just for margaritas,” was Isabella’s later explanation.

My posse is sitting on a chartreuse-colored banquette in an airy dining room with amber lights and what looks like a giant flower painted on the wall. Outside are double the number of seats on a pleasant patio. A bowl of spiced corn nuts and pumpkin seeds precedes our cocktails, each a study in balance and priced as though we’re sipping them in the District ($12). In another life, Ismail was the lead bartender at Zaytinya in Penn Quarter. Several drinks, gathered under the heading “Industry Friends,” show off the talents of his peers from around the country.

Some of the small plates prove modest pleasures, such as a tuna seviche with creamy avocado and coconut milk, and pinto beans braised in beer and topped with white cheese. Of the tacos, the best I’ve tried involved vegetables (roasted cauliflower with pickled cabbage) or tongue (zesty with charred tomatillo). Both could have been improved, however, with better-quality tortillas. And a subsequent visit found a filling of roast pork to be so juicy as to verge on a stew. (Anyone have a strainer?) Meanwhile, a torta stuffed with lamb, refried beans and queso bore no relation to the supreme sandwiches sold in the city at G by Mike Isabella. The combo in Arlington smacked of leftovers between bread slices.

Daily specials alternate between snacks and sips throughout business hours. My advice: Come for drinks — and stick to drinks — at Pepita.

4000 Wilson Blvd. (entrance on North Quincy Street). 703-312-0200. Tacos, sandwiches and small plates, $4 to $14.

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