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Mike Isabella’s Pepita will focus on cocktails, not the kitchen

The Banana Colada, one of the featured drinks at Pepita, includes dark and light rums, banana, cream and pineapple. (Photo by Greg Powers)
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Mike Isabella's restaurants have some fantastic cocktails, as anyone who's tried the barrel-aged Old Fashioned at Graffiato or the mezcal-spiked lemonade at Kapnos can attest. But when a restaurant is helmed by a "Top Chef" contestant with a personality as outsized as Isabella's, the drinks are never going to be as much of an emphasis as what's coming out of the kitchen.

"Working with Mike, the food is always the focus," says Taha Ismail, the veteran bartender who's created the beverage programs at Isabella's restaurants. But at Pepita, which opens July 30 in Ballston, "we're turning it around. It's going to be more cocktail-centric."

That's not an exaggeration: Pepita will offer more than 100 tequilas and a dozen mezcals, which Ismail researched on a recent trip to Jalisco distilleries. These days, he says, "Mezcal is my go-to spirit. I love agave – I love everything about it." In addition to margaritas, which are served by the glass or the pitcher, Ismail's menu offers a section of infused tequila and mezcal cocktails and frozen drinks, as well as drinks on tap. But it's not focused entirely south of the border: There's a selection of tiki drinks, a handful of flips and juleps, and a long list of classic cocktails, from the daiquiri and the rickey to the Lion's Tail and the Last Word. Margaritas cost $10; most cocktails cost $11 to $12.

Inspired by a trip to Portland, Ore.,'s Teardrop Lounge during Portland Cocktail Week, Ismail is also curating a selection of drinks made by bartender friends from across the country. Ismail reached out to a group of peers, asking them for "something unique, that they're proud of, that's also on their menus." Ismail expects this part of the menu to rotate frequently; early contributors include Juan Coronado, the beverage director for Jose Andres's Think Food Group restaurants, and Jon Arroyo, who creates cocktails for Founding Farmers and its associated restaurants.

Ismail says "food will still be key" at Pepita, and options on the menu of what he describes as "Mexican street food" include barbacoa lamb torta, carnitas tacos with smoked pork shoulder and watermelon and jicama salad. Still, it's telling that the liquid menu has at least as twice as selections as the food.

Making it easier to explore all these choices: An all-day happy hour, with food and drink specials that change every two or three hours. Ismail also says there will also be late-night food specials, and he expects all of the discounted items to rotate frequently, and possibly from day to day.

Pepita is located in the same building as sister restaurants Kapnos Taverna, an offshoot of Isabella's Greek D.C. restaurant, and Yona, a Japanese noodle bar expected to open in early fall. "After deciding on the other two concepts, we decided we'd open a bar next door," Ismail jokes. There are 32 seats inside, with another 44 available on the patio.

[Mike Isabella, Jonah Kim to partner for Ballston noodle bar and small plates emporium]

Ismail knows that he's entering a neighborhood where it's easier to find a sports bar than a cocktail lounge. "It's intimidating, but the reason we're doing it is because I want to change the scene a little," he says. "Ballston's only 10 minutes from D.C., but it's different."

Pepita, 4000 Wilson Blvd. (entrance on N. Quincy St.), Arlington. 703-312-0200.