After the standard opening-day delays, Espita Mezcaleria will debut at 4 p.m. Tuesday in Shaw, with more than 80 mezcals and a menu of Oaxacan moles, tacos, sopes and other street foods. The restaurant will start with dinner service until 10 p.m. daily, then add a late-night taqueria menu next week. The kitchen will eventually add lunch and brunch services.
"The tortillas have gotten even better," emails Josh Phillips, the founder, general manager master mezcalier of Espita. "We've committed to grinding in house using Oaxacan heirloom corn. . .And the mezcal list is up to about 85 bottles so far, many if them unique to Espita in this city."
Reservations are now available via OpenTable.
Midway through our interview at the construction site for Espita Mezcaleria, the forthcoming Oaxacan-inspired restaurant in Shaw, Josh Phillips abruptly announces that we should have a drink. Over in a corner, he has placed a pair of mezcal bottles on a wooden table, a piece of furniture that looks out of place among the spare skeletal walls and concrete floors.
My first thought: Where did those bottles come from? My second thought: It's still 15 minutes before noon, I couldn't possibly have a shot. My third thought: Yes, please!
A certified master mezcalier, Phillips talks about the spirit with a knowledge and enthusiasm that will not only have you punching up information on the Web late into the night but also knocking back shots early in the day.
"It's interesting. People think of mezcal, and they think of the smoke bombs," says the Philadelphia native while sipping on a 2014 Mezcal Vago, a grassy, lightly perfumed spirit distilled from coyote agave.
"Smoke should be an integrated flavor, not a base note," Phillips continues. "I like to compare it to smoked meats. You don’t want the smoke on the surface. You want the smoke to penetrate. Once it penetrates the mezcal, all the other flavors can come through.”
When Espita Mezcaleria opens, either in December or January, Phillips expects to have about 100 bottles of mezcal and tequila on hand, split about 80-20 in favor of the mezcals. While sizable, the list will still be smaller than the tequila and mezcal menus at El Centro D.F., which hover around the 200 mark. But as Phillips, the founder and general manager notes, his concept is not some game of mezcal brinkmanship to see who can stockpile the most firewater.
"We’re not going to have all the mezcal, just because I don’t think all of it is good," Phillips says. "So we’ll have all the mezcal that I can get my hands on, that I think is worth drinking.”
Phillips seems as much a connoisseur as a capitalist ready to profit off his preferred spirit. In fact, Espita is taking pains to serve as an American outpost of Oaxacan food, drink and culture.
You'll taste it the plates prepared by Alexis Samayoa, former chef de cuisine at New York's rebellious Empellon Taqueria in the West Village. You'll see it in the decor of the place, a collaboration between Phillips and his sister, Rachel Phillips of Reid & Taylor Studios, who together are riffing on Oaxacan designs based on found objects.
You'll also feel it with the artwork, some of which already hangs in the windows of Espita, replacing the boring brown sheets of paper that usually conceal construction sites. Phillips's mother, Sandra Phillips, a trained artist, has designed a series of divine-but-drunken rabbits, drawn from Aztec mythology; they're the freewheeling children of Patecatl, god of the fermented agave beverage known as pulque, and Mayahuel, goddess of the agave plant.
"Some of them are merrymaking," Josh Phillips says about the rabbits, "and some of them obviously are on their way home. Hopefully.” (Espita, incidentally, is an informal Spanish term for drunkard.)
But Espita will also have custom-designed murals by Yescka, a Oaxacan street artist known for his pointed political critiques. Josh Phillips wrote the anonymous artist a letter, via a link on Yescka's Web site, and asked if Espita could buy a print so that a D.C. artist could then turn it into a mural for the restaurant. The revolutionary artist's response?
"He's like, 'It'd be better if I'm the one who paints my own art,'" Phillips recalls.
Only when Phillips booked Yescka's flight to Washington did the American learn the artist's name. "He's like the Bansky of Mexico," Phillips says, recalling the anonymous British artist and activist. "They're very similar, both stylistically and story-wise."
The menu will have a strong Oaxacan flavor as well. A kitchen veteran who has worked with Wylie Dufresne at wd~50 and Alex Stupak at Empellon, Samayoa plans to prepare tacos, sopes, seviches and all seven of the defining moles of Oaxaca. He'll also offer tlayudas, a Oaxacan antojito or street snack, often called the Mexican pizza.
“It’s like a giant tortilla version of a tostada, but it’s dried out on the plancha,” Phillips says. On the streets of Oaxaca, the crispy round is often slathered with mashed beans and a type of brown lard known as asiento, which serves as a base for any number of toppings. Samayoa will take a more chef-driven approach to the snack, with such preparations as a crab tlayuda.
Samayoa also plans to use fresh masa for all the tortillas, sopes, tlayudas and even chips that come out of his kitchen. Nothing will be pulled from bags, nothing will be reconstituted from masa harina. It will be point of pride for Espita. Phillips likens fresh tortillas to well-developed pizza dough.
"If the crust is great, the pizza is great," he says. "If the crust is garbage, it doesn’t matter how good the toppings are. The first thing that touches your tongue is the crust.”
For Josh Phillips, of course, he wants to help Washingtonians appreciate the complex, small-batch world of Oaxacan mezcals, an artisanal spirit that varies from season to season year like fine Bordeaux wine. He plans to offer one- and two-ounce pours, flights of mezcals distilled from the same varietal, vertical flights of mescal from the same producer, mezcal cocktails, anything to get drinkers interested. He'll even stand ready, should guests want to geek out.
"I'm going to make myself available to any customer who actually wants to go off the deep end," he says.
[This post was originally published Oct. 28, 2015]