This review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2016 Spring Dining Guide as No. 6 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
Evangelist Josh Phillips is on a mission to get Washington to drink more (and better) mezcal. Belly up to his bar, stocked with 90-plus artisanal spirits, and soak up his sermon. Better yet, pair a flight of something special with the handiwork of Alexis Samayoa, whose Mexican menu pays particular attention to the region of Oaxaca. That’s a prompt to spend time with one of the chef’s seven moles, my favorite of which is green with pumpkin seeds, kicky with serrano and lavished on pork ribs. There’s more: sparkling seviches, tacos that rely on heirloom corn for their savor and a staff that’s eager to help you navigate the intoxicating sips and sups. Sidestepping design cliches, Espita treats diners to the brushstrokes of the Oaxacan guerrilla artist known as Yescka on its walls. Depending on your seat, you might be facing a swarm of butterflies or Frida Kahlo.
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Espita Mezcaleria review: A new contender for D.C.’s best Mexican restaurant?
This review was originally published April 6, 2016.
Novice restaurateur Josh Phillips is on a spirited crusade to change the way diners think about mezcal, stocking his bar with 90-plus varieties of the firewater distilled from the agave plant. But the visionary behind the new Espita Mezcaleria in where-else-but-Shaw is focused more on winning converts than in touting numbers, as any conversation with the missionary or his staff demonstrates.
Above all, Phillips, a master mezcalier, wants us to stop thinking of his drink of choice as a smoky cousin to tequila and surprise us with mezcal’s range. Mezcal, Phillips says — and a flight of samples attests — is “more akin to wine than it is to tequila.” (One brand, La Venenosa Sierra del Tigre, smells of Parmesan and tastes like chocolate-covered cherries.) Probably the restaurant offering the most mezcal now, Espita Mezcaleria buys only artisanal spirits, made in small batches and supportive of the farmers at the source rather than factory owners.
(You may wonder how someone becomes a certified mezcalier. In addition to written exams, aspirants are also required to identify varietals of agave in the field, cook with the spirit and even make it.)
As edifying as the pours at Espita Mezcaleria are the plates. Chef Alexis Samayoa, 34, earned his stripes at the well-reviewed Empellon Taqueria in New York and brings to Washington a zeal similar to his business partner’s. His masa, the dough from which the restaurant’s excellent tortillas are coaxed, springs from heirloom corn that might change from month to month. The chef’s moles venture beyond the expected poblano, thickened with nuts and burnished with chocolate, to include liquid drapes in sundry colors and flavors. Sides are best in class, in particular the black beans, which Samayoa learned to make from his Puerto Rican mother in Brooklyn. (She uses a puree of cilantro, onion and poblano, and so should every cook.) Indeed, the restaurant’s only rival is Oyamel, the colorful Mexican small plates purveyor by José Andrés in Penn Quarter.
The best reply to “Would you like to start with a drink?” is “Of course,” followed by one of the aforementioned flights, plus some chips and salsa. A slip of paper describes each sip, poured by the ounce into a shallow black clay cup. One collection, dubbed Time, gathers mezcals from producer Fidencio Pechuga from 2012 to 2014 to illustrate the seasonally changing nature of agave. The oldest tastes subtly of vanilla, the youngest hints of banana. To erase the taste of what you’ve just drunk and prepare yourself for the next sip, orange slices and sea salt mixed with chilies and toasted ground agave worms — sal de gusano, a signature Oaxacan accent — accompany the liquids. The chips, thick and crisp and served as a bouquet, taste like no others in town — imagine if angels made Fritos — and come with a choice of seven dips, all interesting and one pierced with mezcal and smoked jalapeño peppers.
Are you tired of seviche that tastes mostly of lime? Me, too. Samayoa shows his fish, and hence diners, respect. Translucent sea scallops shimmer beneath a verdant carpet of scallions, cilantro and avocado puree, each bite of seafood as vivid as its green looks. Even more captivating are ribbons of hamachi interwoven with slices of pink watermelon radish and shaved pineapple — gift wrap you can eat. In each case, the fish is kissed, rather than walloped, with fresh lime.
For once, a new restaurant that doesn’t ask you to order everything at once! A kitchen that puts diners’ wishes ahead of its own! Only after a bowl gets emptied of chips, and maybe a seviche or salad departs, do we plot our next move. Sometimes it’s a skillet of bubbling Chihuahua cheese scattered with crumbled chorizo spiked with cumin and sherry and tinted green with pureed cilantro and tomatillo. Other dinners, it might be sopes, two thick masa cups crammed with beef short ribs, juicy beneath their roasted red salsa. Always, there follows a mole. Pipian is a foamy green pumpkin seed sauce, spiked with serrano, draped over garlicky pork ribs, while the amarillo sauce — pooled under striped bass and pale fingers of fried rice — gets its color from tomatoes and fruity heat from manzano peppers. The negro, a dark liquid cloak on fatty lamb neck, throws cold water on the fiesta. The mole, made with nearly 20 ingredients, is overly reliant on sweet ones.
Another dish I wouldn’t race back for is the street food snack called tlayuda, a stiff, plate-size tortilla slathered with refried black beans and dressed with pickled jalapeño, shredded romaine, strings of white cheese with the texture of mozzarella and a fan of avocado. As agreeable as the combination sounds, the topping doesn’t move me to finish it.
Which just means you can fill up on tacos. Gimme grilled tilapia, rich with dabs of smoky mayonnaise and ratcheted up with pickled cabbage your lips won’t soon forget, or lamb that benefits, like most meat here, from a rub of red chilies. Threatening to steal some of the thunder of the fillings are the supple tortillas, practically good enough to eat on their own.
Every aspect of the design is made to bring you closer to the Phillips family and Oaxaca, the state in southwestern Mexico best known to food enthusiasts for its seven styles of mole, fried grasshoppers and mezcal. “I’m very lucky,” says the co-owner, a Philadelphia transplant whose business partners include his wife, Kelly. “I come from a random restaurant family,” including a brother-in-law who’s a chef in New York, a sister who specializes in dining room interiors and a mother whose rabbit paintings grace the restrooms. Affixed to the host podium are a collection of wooden spoons members of Phillips’s tribe have gifted one another in a Christmas tradition. Anything that’s not a window is a wall painted by the Oaxacan guerrilla artist known as Yescka, who has become a friend of the principals. His handsome murals run to a smiling skeleton, a swarm of butterflies and a portrait of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
The scenery has the same effect as the food and drink at the pulsing new Espita Mezcaleria. It wakes you up and stirs the senses.
Location: 1250 Ninth St. NW. 202-621-9695. espitadc.com.
Open: Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily; bar menu 10 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Snacks, appetizers, tacos and small plates $3 to $28.
Sound check: 71 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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