A hot, trendy newcomer to DC’s Shaw District, this funky eatery serves up stunning Mexican eats and pours out quarts of mezcal and tequila. Just ask the boss/owner, if you want a lesson on sipping these mind-numbing Mexican liquors.
Wildly glamorous and rather noisy, Espita Mezcaleria offers a menu with Southern Mexican specialties and a bar filled with an expansive—possibly even expensive—assortment of mezcals, with more than 100 different varietals ready to share or enjoy sipping solo. And then there is the selection of tequilas.
With all the out-there cheery commentaries and noisy furor, any sane DC foodie will want to at least experiment with the food. And that is the challenge, for the menu does not resemble the standard restaurant template: instead, management and the chef have categorized its specialties, from a listing of 7 different salsas—including pistachio, mezcal, and peanut with roasted tomatoes—to numerous tacos, moles, salads, and more. For clarity, patrons will surely ask for guidance, and probably end up ordering a tableful of goodies. After all, the goal of the restaurant is to familiarize patrons with the stunning flavors of Oaxacan food. If that slice of Mexican cuisine is unfamiliar beforehand, patrons will walk out with a different view of these rustic flavors.
Take, for example, the 7 different moles, sauces that are particularly famous for their Oaxacan origins. Each choice is served with a collection of freshly made corn tortillas crafted from heirloom corncobs sent up from Mexico. And the tacos—including grilled tilapia, chicken, pork (al pastor), and barbecued lamb—come as portions wrapped up in heirloom corn tortillas. Note that the lamb is outrageously delish!
While you nibble and sip, the owner, Josh Phillips, who is a master mezcalier (someone who knows a WHOLE lot about mezcal and who has passed an exam) will likely stop by. If mezcal is totally unfamiliar, he can talk you through the various attributes of the beverage, and could suggest various tastings for your palate. And maybe the chef, Alexis Samayoa, will stop by and check out how you are enjoying these unusual creations—the short rib tartlet is just one of the many to sample.
Drawing the line at what and how much to order is a challenge. You could order several of the salsas with crunchy corn chips to start, while trying to decided between the tacos, tlayudas (very large tortillas topped with refried black beans and two other choices) the tartlets, and the fundidos, or melted cheeses with those corn tortillas and a choice of toppings.
As for the moles, these are shared plates, and the must-have it the Negro, a smoky, meaty barbecued lamb neck in a dark mole that is large enough to feed at least four people. It, too, comes with corn tortillas, and is so delicious that any leftovers should get packed up for home. Chances are, however, the devotees of lamb will consume every last bite. Other mole choices include manchamanteles (a half chicken), pipian (country-style pork ribs), and chichilo (beef short ribs). And if the word “mole” puzzles you, ask the waitstaff for clarity.
Because it tends to be crowded with gatherings of every age group—from millennials to grannies—who are in the party mood and mode, plan to make a reservation or you may just have to wait for a seat. If that is the case, the friendly staff will probably offer you water, if not shots of mezcal.
Why come here? The delicious lamb. And the mezcals…
Espita Mezcaleria, 1250 9th St., NW, Washington, DC. Phone: 202-621-9695. Hours: Dinner nightly (opening lunchtime in the future).
Young and energetic, the executive chef at Espita Mezcaleria, Alexis Samayoa, is on fire. Well, not literally, but with a passion for presenting the best and most authentic Oaxacan cuisine from that state in Mexico. There natives enjoy a variety of moles, the sauce made famous in Oaxaca and Puebla, and Samayoa and his partner, Josh Phillips, are determined to showcase not only seven moles but also other Oaxcan landmark dishes.
Although the youngster Samayoa never had any intention of choosing cooking as a career, he suddenly awoke to its pull when he found teaching, his first choice, somewhat boring. Besides, he had been working part-time in a local Brooklyn restaurant, and realized how much he loved the kitchen. That convinced him to change his career path, and he enrolled in The Art Institute of New York City.
After graduation, he worked in various Manhattan restaurants to hone his skills. His specialty now is Latino food. “It just happened, before being a cook, and it just happened,” he said. “My mom is Puerto Rican, and helped me make food passionate. She has no recipes, so when mom would cook, she made the dishes with her heart. That stuck in me, no matter where I cook.
When Phillips approached him about moving to DC to open this restaurant, Samayoa was hesitant—as a New York native, DC seemed really far away. But when he came and saw the DC food scene, he decided to take the plunge. And to make this restaurant stand out above all other Mexican-based eateries, he decided to import most of the basic ingredients, such as the heirloom corn used to make the tortillas, from Oaxaca. That, of course, adds an element of authenticity that shows how determined this chef is.
Super busy during mealtimes, Samayoa may not be able to answer patrons’ questions, but he goes to great lengths to educate the front-of-house staff about the remarkable food. He even presents a dish to them before opening, tells the story about it, and answers staff questions so that they can educate the patrons.
So far, the response to this restaurant has been great, he said. “We are the new kid on the block,” he said. “The menu in a year? I want it to be memorable.” It already is.