Friday, April 29, 2016

8-2-Eat: Tacos Tacos Tacos

Ancho Chile Chicken Tacos with Slaw and Avocado Cream

8-2-Eat is my food-focused list series. A perfect Friday distraction. Monday I wrote about a tacos-focused cookbook, so it only seemed appropriate that I close the week with an 8-2-Eat featuring more taco recipes.

Carnitas Tacos. It's hard to beat this classic taco of slowly braised pork shoulder shredded in finished under a broiler to crisp up it the meat's edges. Simply perfect.

Ancho Chile Chicken Tacos with Slaw and Avocado Cream (pictured at top). Chicken tacos are great because they are so fast to cook, making them an ideal weeknight dinner. This recipe was my experiment to convey a recipe only through pictures.

Salmon Tacos. Fish tacos are often made with a white fish, but it turns out that salmon works great here too, garnished with a cabbage slaw and chipotle-lime crema.

Ramen Noodle Pork Tacos. Sure, Korean Tacos have defined Asian-fusion tacos for some time, but I wanted to put a new spin on the Asian fusion taco with this version where ramen noodles form the tortilla.

Black Bean and Avocado Tacos. Want a vegetarian taco that packs as much flavor as one with meat? I turn to black beans and melty jack cheese to fill that bill.

Chicken and Apple Tacos. Apples in tacos? Why not! The fruit adds a nice sweetness and goes great with chicken, as well as Apple Margaritas.

Steak, Egg and Smoked Gouda Breakfast Tacos. If you haven't tried breakfast tacos yet, they are a revelation. This great combination was inspired by last year's trip to Austin.

Seasoned Turkey and Corn Salsa Tacos. Still craving those old-school ground meat tacos? Update that Gen X classic with ground turkey and a custom seasoning mix.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Two More Mezcal Cocktails

La Otra Palabra mezcal cocktail

To go with the tacos I wrote about on Monday, here are two more great mezcal cocktails. La Otra Palabra comes from John McEvoy's Holy Smoke! It's Mezcal! book, which I wrote about recently. This a great cocktail for showing how well mezcal goes with yellow chartreuse. The other drink, which I saw on the Imbibe website, shows how well mezcal goes with amari and spicy flavors. The original recipe calls for Cynar; I used Averna--both are good examples of Italian amari.

La Otra Palabra
Adapted from Eric Alperin's recipe, as used in Holy Smoke! It's Mezcal! by John McEvoy

2 oz. mezcal joven (I used Del Maguey Vida mezcal)
1/4 oz. yellow Chartreuse
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1/4 oz. agave nectar
1 tsp. Luxardo maraschino liqueur
Maraschino cherry, garnish

Combine mezcal, Chartreuse, lime juice, agave and maraschino liqueur in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until cold, then strain into a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with cherry.

Red Brick Kitchen's Mezcal Cocktail

Red Brick Kitchen's Mezcal Cocktail
Adapted from a recipe by Peter Landrum, Red Brick Kitchen & Bar in Dexter, Michigan that appeared on Imbibe's website

1 1/4 oz. mezcal joven (I used Del Maguey Vida mezcal)
1/4 oz. Averna amaro (the original recipe called for Cynar)
1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice, from 1/2 freshly cut lemon
1/2 oz. agave nectar
2 dashes of orange bitters
Smoked sea salt
Aleppo pepper flakes

Combine mezcal, Averna, lemon juice, agave and orange bitters in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until very cold. Run the spent lemon rind around the rim of the glass to moisten it. Spread the smoked salt and Aleppo pepper on a plate and rum the moistened rim of the glass through the mixture to make a spicy-salty rim on the glass. Fill the glass with ice, then strain the drink into the glass.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Tacos by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman

Tacos may very well be the perfect food. Of course, there's a lot of room to argue this point, but it's hard to resist a warm star filling with a spicy salsa and a few garnishes folded into an earthy warm corn or flour tortilla. It's a basic formula that allows for seemingly endless combinations.

Basic, yes, but simple, not necessarily, at least not as presented in Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, the James Beard Award-nominated cookbook from Empellón chef Alex Stupak and food writer Jordana Rothman. For those who view tacos as a "quick" dinner of pre-made taco shells, pre-shredded cheese and ground meat browned for 10 minutes with a pre-mixed seasoning pack, this Tacos book is not for you. For those interested in rolling up your sleeves to create sophisticated flavors with a wide variety of interesting ingredients and homemade salsas, Tacos is a eye-opening look at the potential for how the basic foundation of a taco can be expanded upon in a myriad of ways.

Before I get into the tacos themselves, let's consider Stupak's interesting career for a moment. Born in Massachusetts and educated at the Culinary Institute of America, the young chef first made his name in the late 2000s as a modernist pastry chef working for Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago and for Wylie Dufresne at (the now defunct) WD~50 in New York, two of the most acclaimed modernist establishments in the country. That he would walk away from this in the 2010s to instead cook Mexican food--a cuisine from another country steeped in tradition for which he had no apparent experience--was a remarkable risk. But clearly it's one that has paid off. Empellón Taqueria was a success, followed by Empellón Cocina and Empellón al Pastor. I've been to two of these establishments and was particularly smitten with the fine cooking at Empellón Taqueria.

Stupak addresses his amazing transformation in the book's introduction, noting that despite his Massachusetts upbringing with "Old El Paso taco nights," he later became fascinated with more authentic Mexican food while living in Chicago. With a Rick Bayless cookbook in hand, Stupak became obsessed with learning his hand at the cuisine. A trip to Los Angeles solidified his affinity for freshly made tortillas, his first of which he names as one of his three defining moments as a cook.

Empellon's website defines "empellón" as meaning to "to push or jostle" and "to break through." Both are apt words for describing how the Empellón restaurants have helped elevate the status of Mexican cuisine while also allowing Stupak to reinvent his position in the restaurant world. Stupak brings this up in the introduction to explain his approach to Mexican. He's not interested in simplifying a foreign cuisine for American palates (and patience or lack thereof).

So, as I mentioned above, don't go into this book expecting simplicity. You know how experienced cooks always recommend reading through a recipe first before beginning it? You'll definitely want to do that here, as you'll need to consider the time for making not just the taco in the recipe but also the accompanying salsa. Many of the recipes require cooking times of multiple hours. These are not recipes to break out for dinner after a full workday.

Chicken Tacos with Kale and Salsa Verde
I tried three of what I perceived to the book's simpler recipes, and even these were pretty involved. First I made the Chicken Tacos with Kale and Salsa Verde, a wonderful dish mad with roasted chicken thighs and a raw salsa verde that the kale is cooked in. The tacos are garnished with queso fresco, diced raw onion, cilantro and lime. In total, it took me about 2 hours to make this dish, and the tacos were delicious. (Note that I did not make my own corn tortillas for these or any of the other tacos here. Stupak includes a recipe for them, and I have made my own tortillas in my past, but I went the store-bought route here as I could find masa marina).

Cheeseburger tacos

Next up, I tackled the cheeseburger tacos. They may sound like a bad Tex-Mex idea, but Stupak says they are actually found in Mexico City (inspired, of course, by American cheeseburgers). This one is actually doable on a weeknight, as the only cooking really is browning the ground beef and the accompanying salsa roja is not difficult to prepare. In a sense, this is the closest the book comes to those "Old El Paso" tacos Stupak references in the introduction, although I think this is far more interesting. I included my own little twist to the recipe: the addition of sweet pickles, which I think nicely offset the spicy salsa.

Salsa Roja
And yes, this salsa is pretty spicy, but it's also amazingly good. The spicy-sweet salsa, which has a touch of vinegar, serves as the "ketchup" in the cheeseburger tacos. The salsa is made with dried guajillo chile peppers--10 in the book but I dialed that back to a still-quite-spicy 5. It's a tomato-based salsa that is probably the pureed red salsa marked "hot" that you see at taquerias. Unfortunately, I found an error in this recipe, but it's a simple one to fix, and I think most cooks will realize what to do. The first step involves roasting tomatoes, which are then cooled, peeled and set aside--to then never appear again in the instructions (I assume they should be added to the blender along with the soaked chiles, garlic and spices).

Mashed Pea Tacos (with bacon)

Lastly, wanting something green, I tried the Mashed Pea Tacos, which are perfect for spring. This recipe is also fairly simple and less time-intensive. The only cooking involved is blanching the peas, which are then whirled with parmesan in a food processor until smooth (I added a little water to give the choppy puree a smoother texture). Vegetarians will abhor the other change I made: I added bacon. I know, it's meant to be a vegetarian recipe, but the bacon and pea combination was really quite good here, so I don't feel any shame in suggesting it.

The James Beard Book, Broadcast & Journalism Awards are tomorrow night, where Tacos will compete for the Single-Subject Book award with A Bird in the Hand: Chicken Recipes for Every Day and Every Mood by Diana Henry and Mastering Pasta: The Art and Practice of Handmade Pasta, Gnocchi, and Risotto by Marc Vetri with David Joachim.

Cheeseburger Tacos with Salsa Roja
Adapted from recipes in Tacos by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothmans

I adapted this recipe by using fewer chiles and omitting the chipotle chile in the salsa roja and substituting canned roasted tomatoes for fresh plum tomatoes. I also reduced the amount of cheese by half, substituted guacamole for sliced avocado and added sweet pickles to the tacos.

Makes 12 tacos

Salsa roja:

5 dried guajillo chiles (split open with stems and seeds removed)
1/2 tsp. dried Mexican oregano
1/8 tsp. cumin seeds
5 garlic cloves (unpeeled)
1 cup fire-roasted diced tomatoes (from a 15 oz can)
1/4 cup water
Large pinch of kosher salt
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

Cheeseburger tacos:

1 lb. ground beef (I used 85 percent lean)
Salt, to taste
4 oz. shredded mild cheddar cheese (note: the original recipe called for 1 lb. grated Chihuahua cheese; I divided the amount of cheese in half and substituted cheddar and muenster)
4 oz. shredded muenster cheese
12 flour or corn tortillas (I used flour)
3/4 cup mayonnaise
Bread and butter sweet pickles
1/2 medium sweet onion, diced
Fresh guacamole
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves

Make the salsa:

1. Heat a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the chiles and toast for about a minute. Transfer chilies to a bowl, cover with hot tap water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain chiles and chop into smaller pieces. Set aside.

2. Add the oregano and cumin seeds to the hot skillet and toast until fragrant, about 15 to 30 seconds. Remove from the pan, transfer to a spice grinder and grind into a fine powder.

3. Add the garlic cloves to the hot skillet and toast in the pan until browned in places, about 6 minutes. Remove the garlic and allow to cool, then peel the garlic cloves.

4. Combine the drained chiles, ground spices, garlic, tomatoes, water, salt, sugar and vinegar in a food processor. Puree until the mixture is smooth (note: the original recipe calls for straining the mixture with a fine-mesh sieve, but I kept it chunky). Transfer to a container and store in the refrigerator until ready to use (the salsa will keep for up to 3 days).

Make the tacos:

1. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the beef and cook until browned, breaking up with a wooden spoon as the meat cooks, about 10 minutes. Season with salt, to taste. Add the shredded cheese and stir until the cheese is combined with the meat and melted, about 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

2. Warm the tortillas and divide among 4 plates.

3. Assemble the tacos: spread1 tbsp. of mayonnaise on each tortilla, then divide the meat-cheese mixture evenly among each tortilla. Top with a generous spoonful of salsa roja, a few slices of sweet pickles, a sprinkle of diced onion, a spoonful of guacamole and a few cilantro leaves.

Mashed Pea and Bacon Tacos
Adapted from Mashed Pea Tacos with Parmesan Cheese from Tacos by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothmans

Note: I adapted this recipe by adding bacon and omitting freshly squeeze lime juice as a garnish.

Makes 6 tacos

2 dried pasilla chiles, split open with stems and seeds removed
4 oz. hickory-smoked thick-sliced bacon (note: this is not in the original recipe)
12 oz. shelled English peas
1/2 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano (parmesan) cheese, plus more for serving (note: I used pre-grated parmesan for mixing with the peas and a block of parmesan I grated with a microplane for finishing the tacos)
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch of kosher salt
6 corn tortillas
18 pea tendrils or 1 cup of pea shoots (the original recipe calls for pea tendrils, but I used pea shoots, since that's what I could find)

1. Heat a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the chiles and toast, turning occasionally, until fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Transfer chilies to a bowl, cover with hot tap water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain chiles and chop into smaller pieces. Set aside.

2. Add the bacon to the skillet and cook, turning the bacon occasionally, until the bacon is cooked through. Transfer the bacon to a paper-towel-lined plate to cool. Break the bacon into 1-inch pieces.

3. Heat about 3 inches of water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add peas and cook for about 2 minutes. Drain peas and set aside.

4. Add the chiles, peas and 1/2 cup of grated parmesan, olive oil and kosher salt to a food processor. Process until the mixture forms a smooth puree (add 1 or 2 tbsp. of water if needed to smooth it out).

5. Warm the flour tortillas and divide between two plates. Place a few tablespoons of pea puree on each taco and a handful of bacon crumbles. Top with a small handful of pea tendrils or shoots and a sprinkle of freshly grated parmesan.


Dining Notes from New York, January 2016 (includes my review of Empellón Taqueria)

Smoked Cashew Salsa (a recipe from Empellón Cocina)

Spicy Pistachio Guacamole (a recipe inspired by the guacamole served at Empellón Cocina)

Friday, April 22, 2016

8-2-Eat: The Fresh vs. Dried Herbs Debate

8-2-Eat is my food-focused list series. A perfect Friday distraction. With the cold winter months finally in retreat, it's time to thing about planting herbs for spring and summer. Here's my thoughts on whether 8 popular herbs are better fresh or dried.

Herbs are a wonderful way to add extra flavor to many dishes and most common herbs are available two ways: fresh or dried. Which should you use? There's probably more opinions than there are herb options on that question, yet I'll add my voice to the choir anyway. Sure, dried herbs have their appeal--they last a long time, so it's easy to have them on hand. And in many cases, they'll work in a pinch. But when comes to imparting good flavor, fresh herbs are going to be a better choice probably 99 percent of the time. Here are my thoughts about whether to go fresh or dried for eight of the most popular herbs.

Parsley: Fresh always. Parsley once served mostly as garnish next to an orange wedge. Today, we appreciate this bright, mildly bitter herb as a way to make a lot of dishes "pop." But dried parsley? It's absolutely wretched. It's odor--more akin to old hay that didn't get swept out from the corner of a barn--is nothing like its fresh counterpart. For some herbs, I'll say, sure, go ahead and use the dried if you don't have fresh, but when it comes to parsley, you're better off just skipping it. Try fresh parsley in Pasta with Peas, Bacon and Parsley or Parsley Pesto Spaghetti.

Basil: Fresh mostly. Fresh basil is one of the great delights of summer. It's so wonderful with tomatoes. I love it in panzanella and tossed onto a fresh pasta dish in little ribbons. Dried basil is OK when cooked into a sauce, but you're really losing that wonderful summer vibrancy with dried basil. And pesto, one of fresh basil's best uses, isn't going to be the same with dried basil. Try fresh basil in Heirloom Tomato Panzanella.

Mint: Fresh mostly. Mint is such a wonderful fresh herb--one of my absolute favorites. It's easy to grow and one of the cheaper ones to buy at the store. So it's hard for me to justify ever using it dry, where it loses much of its vibrancy. That said, I don't have the aversion to dried mint like I do dried parsley, but it it just doesn't do anything for me. Try fresh mint muddled into a Classic Mojito.

Rosemary: Fresh mostly. Fresh rosemary is perfect for adding a woodsy flavor to meats, salads and cocktails. Dried rosemary is pretty good at retaining its proper scent, but the problem is its texture. Rosemary is a pretty hardy herb, reminiscent of a evergreen branch. As a fresh herb, it's easy to remove and chop the leaves. Dried rosemary, however, is basically like little dried pine needles, and they don't reconstitute that much when cooking. If you are using dried rosemary, it's recommended that you grind the herb up or wrap the leaves in cheesecloth for applications like flavoring soups or stews so you can remove the leaves before serving. Try fresh rosemary in Winter Chicken Salad Sandwich.

Chives: Fresh preferred. Like parsley, chives are a good finishing herb to give a dish a little extra pop. More along the lines of a bright, grassy onion flavor in this case. Chives are one of the easiest herbs to grow. In fact, they are the only herb I've planted on my balcony that will survive the winter--they've done it 2 years in a row now, which is pretty impressive. Dried chives are, naturally, less flavorful, but they aren't a bad choice for stirring into a dip for some green color or topping mashed potatoes if you don't have fresh ones around. Try fresh chives on top of Sour Cream and Chive Mashed Potatoes.

Dill: Fresh or dried. Now we're getting down to herbs that, when dried, still manage to retain most of the flavor you get from their fresh version. Dill, often called dill weed in its dried version, is one of my favorite spring herbs. The fresh version is good in lots of things; the dried version works well in creamy dips and salad dressings. Try fresh dill in Pecan, Grape and Chicken Salad with Microgreens; try dried dill weed in Greek Yogurt Ranch Dressing.

Thyme: Fresh or dried. Fresh thyme is another of my favorite herbs, but there's a nice convenience factor with the dried version, since getting all those little leaves off a sprig of thyme can be a pain (I've found that putting the sprigs in the freezer is a great way to get a lot of the leaves off). Try fresh thyme in Fresh Herb Croutons. Try dried thyme in Roasted Vegetable Salad.

Oregano: Dried mostly. This is the only herb that I prefer to use in dried form. I actually really like dried oregano, which has a wonderful spicy-sweet scent and flavor. Plus, it's much easier to use than fresh oregano, which I find one of the most annoying fresh herbs to deal with: it's leaves are too large to be easily plucked off like thyme or rosemary but too small to be easily pruned and chopped like basil. Basically, you're stick with plucking each leaf off individually--a real thrill I assure you. Fresh oregano is very tasty, but dried oregano is pretty great too, so unlike many other herbs, the dried version isn't sacrificing flavor. Use dried oregano in Sautéed Chicken Fajitas. Try fresh oregano in Fresh Tomato and Oregano Soup.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Restaurant: The Riggsby (Washington, D.C.)

The Riggsby DC

Time travel isn't really possible, yet we're often drawn to experiences that evoke our past, even though they don't actually re-create them. They play on our nostalgia--a rosy view of what we remember of old that holds on to the good and jettisons the rest. Television shows like Mad Men play into this, presenting a stylized vision of the past. Setting aside the show's fascinating yet often deeply flawed characters, was life in the '60s really  as stylish as it's portrayed on Mad Men? Probably not, yet it's a fun world to visit.

Similarly, The Riggsby plays on our nostalgia for foods from the past, specifically that era of American cooking from the late '60s or so until the early '80s when proteins were the unabashed champions of the entree section and French cooking was considered the "creme de la creme" of good food. Sure, this era was also dominated by the rise of food processing, frozen entrees, MSG and high-fructose corn syrup, but, working from nostalgia, The Riggsby gets to ignore those things and instead deliver a menu that plays on our memory of what delighted us from that time.

And it's a menu that's quite varied too, which helps usher the food into the modern era of today where French cuisine isn't so dominant and Americans' ideas of what makes good food has greatly diversified. Additionally, as a hotel restaurant, The Riggsby needs to appeal to a diverse clientele, so its approach that draws on a number of influences--French, German, Italian and American--satisfies both its interest in eclectic nostalgia and the varied appetites of its guests. The Riggsby is probably the first D.C. restaurant to come along in a long time that could call its cuisine "continental"--a once common term for fine dining restaurants serving food influenced by a range of European traditions.

That "little bit of everything" approach should ensure you'll find something on the menu that interests you. There's a burger with bacon-onion jam that sounds amazing, there's a steak--a good box for any hotel restaurant to tick, there's a spaghetti dish--a riff on pasta all'amatriciana. Something that is missing, however, is a vegetarian entree. Non-meat-eaters take note.

The Riggsby jalapeño tater tots
Jalapeño tater tots
A short list of snacks is a good way to start the evening. We're tempted by the homemade potato chips with onion dip and the deviled eggs with chilies and crispy chicken skin, but settle on the jalapeño tater tots, a dish that exemplifies the menu's updated nostalgia perfectly. These aren't the oven-baked tater tots of yore, but rather creamy potato puree with a crispy exterior arranged on top a spicy aioli and garnished with thin slices of red jalapeño giving the bites a gentle kick.

The Riggsby Social Smoker cocktail
Social Smoker cocktail
A cocktail is also a must, and The Riggsby's drink menu is divided between classic and original drinks. We opted for the latter, and I loved my Social Smoker made with mezcal, Caradamaro (a cardamom liqueur), maraschino and orange bitters. Chris's Last Frontier, a sort of bourbon-amaretto sour was also good.

The Riggsby Jimmy Special "Chopped" House Salad
Jimmy Special "Chopped" House Salad 
I'd read about the Jimmy Special "Chopped" House Salad and really wanted to try it. I loved how every bite delivered something a little different: green beans, a cube of cheddar or slices of radish. The mix of ingredients arrive showered with crumbles of bacon, hard-cooked egg and frico (parmesan cracker) dressed judiciously with Thousand Island dressing. Chris's endive salad was also interesting, although not as good as the chopped salad. I liked its use of nuts and the ghostly-white pickled strawberries were interesting, but overall I thought the salad was too bitter.

The Riggsby roasted chicken

The Riggsby schnitzel a la Lyonnaise
Top: Roasted Chicken; Bottom: Schnitzel a la Lyonnaise
That was actually a theme of the night: everything I ordered was better than what he ordered, revealing that while there's a lot that's really good on this menu, not everything is a stunner. We felt similarly about our entrees. I was very pleased with my roasted chicken, which consisted of two generously portioned pieces of chicken perfectly roasted and served with small potatoes, onions and broccoli rabe held together by a rich brown sauce flecked with green peppercorns. Chris went for the more adventurous Schnitzel "a la Lyonnaise," which arrived with a fried egg and frisee-shallot side salad--i.e. a Salade Lyonnaise. I liked the crispy breaded schnitzel, but Chris found it to be too dry.

The Riggsby Chocolate Cake
Chocolate Cake
We were united in liking our dessert though, a cylinder of chocolate cake with a higher ratio of frosting-to-cake than a normal slice, served with caramel, almonds and vanilla gelato. It's a bit rich for a warmer weather dessert, but I couldn't pass it up. The Riggsby ice cream sundae with vanilla and chocolate gelato served with peanuts, Chantilly cream and a brandied cherry sounds really good too.

Service at The Riggsby was generally good. The host stand got a little flustered when, in the middle of my telling them about our reservation, the previously seated party returned to ask for a different table. And our server didn't check on us after our entrees arrived, but otherwise our food arrived in reliably standard waves and the staff was friendly. I also liked the restaurant's appropriately retro decor. The bar area, which also functions as a secondary dining room, has dark green walls and artsy wallpaper, as well as a beautiful curved bar. This would be a great place to get a drink if you're in Dupont Circle and not up for a full dinner.

The Riggsby is the second D.C. restaurant from chef and restauranteur Michael Schlow, following Tico, the wonderful Latin American-focused restaurant we visited last year. A third, the Italian Alta Strada opened recently, and I've really looking forward to trying its pizza and pasta-focused menu. Judging from his two places we've tried, Schlow is as adept at genre-hopping as some of D.C.'s other marquee chefs. And with the Riggsby, he manages the fun trick of looking backward while again contributing to the forward-march of great new restaurants in the city. It's perfect place to go if you want to feel like Don Draper, but arguably, you'll eat better too.

The Riggsby, 1731 New Hampshire Avenue NW (between 17th, 18th, R and S Streets in the Carlyle Hotel), Washington, D.C. (Dupont Circle). (202) 787-1500. Reservations: Open Table.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Pecan, Grape and Chicken Salad with Microgreens

If I was going to do one of those blogs where you cook every recipe in one cookbook, I'd probably choose Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins' The New Basics Cookbook. The book was published in 1989, and the recipes do show their age sometimes, but for the most part it's still an amazing collection of tasty recipes that focus on fresh ingredients prepared well.

I find their recipes to be quite flexible too, and I often treat them as a starting point for something just slightly different. Take this salad, which I adapted from the book's recipe for Pecan Chicken Salad. The essence of this recipe is the pairing of celery, grapes, pecans and chicken with fresh dill. It's a wonderful spring chicken salad combination. I changed the chicken cooking technique to make if faster, pan-frying chicken breast cutlets instead of braising chicken breasts in the oven. I also changed the dressing by using nonfat Greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise and sour cream, which lowers its calories and fat significantly, and by adding lemon juice and zest. I also served the salad with sunflower microgreens instead of watercress. If you haven't tried these microgreens yet, they are wonderful in salads. I see them at Whole Foods a lot lately.

Pecan, Grape and Chicken Salad with Microgreens
Adapted from Pecan Chicken Salad recipe from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins

Makes 2 entree servings

2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
3/4 lb. chicken breast cutlets
1/2 tsp. ground sumac
1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
Salt, to taste
2 cups sunflower microgreens
1 cup green grapes, cut in half
2 stalks of celery, diced (about 1/2 cup)
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill
2 tsp. lemon zest (zest from about 1/2 a lemon)
1 tbsp. lemon juice (from about 1/2 a lemon)
3/4 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat olive oil in a medium-size pan over medium heat. Pat chicken breasts dry with paper towels and add to the pan. Season chicken with sumac, aleppo pepper, garlic powder and a small pinch of salt. Cook until lightly browned on one side, about 5 minutes, then turn over and continue cooking until browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes total. Remove chicken from pan and transfer to a cutting board, allow to cool slightly, then chop into 1/2-inch pieces.

2. Heat a small frying pan over medium-low heat. Toast the pecans until fragrant, about 6-8 minutes, tossing occasionally to prevent burning. Set the pecans aside on a cutting board to cool slightly, then chop coarsely.

3. Combine microgreens, grapes, celery, all but 1 tsp. of the dill, the cooked chicken and the toasted pecans in a large bowl. Whisk together the lemon zest, lemon juice, yogurt, salt (to taste) and pepper in a small bowl, then add to the bowl. Toss the ingredients until evenly dressed. Serve in shallow bowls topped with an additional sprinkle of fresh dill.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Vegan Lemon Cake with Lemon Icing

Vegan baking isn't something I thought I'd be into. Butter and eggs are hallmarks of almost every type of baked treat such as cookies and cakes. Forgoing those ingredients might mean making substitutions that just don't quite give you the same richness or texture.

That's why this recipe by ShopCookMake appealed to me. Rather than substitute for those ingredients, it just omits them. And the results weren't just adequate, they were fantastic. This is a delicious lemon cake perfect for springtime. Instead of butter, the cake is made with vegetable oil, which is a common substitution anyway, even if the cake recipe also uses eggs. Yes, the cake wasn't quite as rich as a cake with butter and eggs, but frankly the lack of richness contributed to this being a "lighter" treat in keeping with the season.

I made a few alterations to the recipe. First of all, I increased its volume to be appropriate for a 9 X 13 baking dish. Although the original author declined to specify the size of the baking dish for her recipe, its volume of 1 1/2 cups of flour suggests to me that it was ideal for a 9 X 9 pan (although her cake is clearly rectangular--she must have a different size pan I'm not used to). Additionally, I used only lemons, instead of lemons and limes, and I omitted the vinegar, which struck me as superfluous. The reason a cake recipe would have vinegar is to contribute acid to activate the baking soda and thus create leavening. This cake already has a generous amount of acid from the lemon juice and, given that lemon cakes are comparably more delicate in flavor as compared to, say, a chocolate cake, I was concerned the vinegar could add unwanted flavor. Omitting it just makes the recipe simpler.

Vegan Lemon Cake with Lemon Icing
Adapted from a recipe by ShopCookMake for Instructables

2 to 3 lemons (enough for 1/3 cup of juice and 3 tbsp. of zest)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 2/3 cups demerara or turbinado sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/4 cups water
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more for the pan

3 tbsp lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1 1/4 cup confectioner (powdered) sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Zest the lemons, then juice them. You'll want 1/3 cup of juice and about 3 tbsp. of zest.

3. Whisk together the flour, sugar and baking soda in a large bowl, then stir in the lemon zest. Whisk together the lemon juice, water, vanilla and oil, then add to the dry ingredients and whisk together until combined.

4. Brush a 9 X 13 baking dish with vegetable oil, then pour the batter into the dish. Smooth the top with a spatula. Bake until a toothpick or knife inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and set on a cooling rack. Cool completely before icing the cake.

5. Combine the remaining lemon juice and powdered sugar in a small bowl, using a spoon to mix the icing until smooth. Pour over the top of the cake. Serve the cake from the pan, cut into squares.

Friday, April 8, 2016

8-2-Eat: Favorite Mezcal Cocktails

The Lightsaber cocktail with mezcal

8-2-Eat is my food-focused list series. A perfect Friday distraction. This week I've focused on mezcal, my favorite spirit, with a trip to D.C.'s new mezcal- and Oaxaca-focused restaurant, Espita Mezcaleria and a look at a book all about the spirit, Holy Smoke! It's Mezcal! Finishing the week, here's 8...or rather 17...great cocktails made with mezcal.

Margarita. Starting with something familiar, a margarita is a great way to get a first taste of mezcal, since it's in a familiar setting of the tart and sweet classic, but just a bit smoky. Dave Arnold's Smoky Frozen Margarita, from his book Liquid Intelligence, plays on mezcal's affinity for chartreuse. The Margarita on Fire plays on mescal's affinity for heat with Bittermens Hellfire habanero shrub (since, after all, where there's smoke, there's fire). The Smoky Pear Margarita drops the margarita's usual orange flavor in favor of pear. Lastly, Mom's Mezcal Margarita, which I found in John McEvoy's Holy Smoke! It's Mezcal! book that I wrote about earlier this week, is a wonderful variation on a mezcal margarita with brandy and Peychaud's bitters.

Oaxaca Old Fashioned. This modern classic from Death & Co is where mezcal really gets a chance to shine. It's an elegantly simple (brilliant really) play on the classic Old Fashioned where tequila and mezcal sit in for whiskey and agave replaces simple sugar.  The bitters is a good place to get creative--Angostura is in the original recipe, and many, including me, like it with Bittermens Xocolatl mole bitters for yet another nod to Oaxaca. The original recipe has 3 parts tequila to 1 part mezcal, but as you drink this cocktail more, I think you'll appreciate upping the proportion of mezcal (in fact, I like now with all mezcal).

Division Bell. Mayahuel in New York is our favorite place to drink mezcal. I wrote about the bar after our first visit last September and again this January. A few years ago, before I'd ever stepped foot inside, I had already heard about the bar's reputation for crafting excellent cocktails like Jacko's End and the Smoked Palomino. It was after our first visit that I shared their recipe for the Division Bell, a great example of a summer mezcal cocktail that isn't a margarita, its smokiness playing off the sunny-citrusy Aperol with just a touch of maraschino liqueur (it only takes a touch of that stuff). Another good mezcal and Aperol combination is Naked and Famous, developed at Death & Co as play on the Last Word where the drink's four components are in equal proportion.

Broken Oath. Citrus and agave flavors are hallmarks of margaritas and play well with mezcal too, but here's a drink that goes in an entirely different direction, marked by darker, bitter and savory flavors of sherry, coffee and sweet vermouth. Of course, it's another winner from Death & Co.

6666 Miles. Also with coffee liqueur, although much simpler than the Broken Oath, this is my attempt at a sort of homage to the Oaxaca Old Fashioned by recreating an existing classic--in this case, a Black Russian--with mezcal. The name comes from the distance between Moscow and Mexico City.

Sweet Lips. This is also from McEvoy's Holy Smoke! It's Mezcal! book, a fantastically sweet and spicy drink made with fresh serrano chile peppers (for some serious kick) and homemade vanilla syrup. While I enjoyed all three of the cocktails I made from the book, this was my favorite.

The Lightsaber (pictured at top). Mezcal has featured prominently in my Oscar-themed cocktails over the years. My Star Wars: The Force Awakens-themed drink, The Lightsaber, was one of my favorites this year, a smoky take on a swizzle drink made with mezcal, cachaça, crème de cacao, blue curaçao and lime. Other mezcal-based favorite Oscar drinks include Whiplash, The Red Planet (The Martian, pictured at right) and The Market Fizz(led) (The Big Short).

Spicy Aztec Hot Chocolate with Mezcal. I'll finish this list with a dessert cocktail, a wonderfully Mexican take on boozy hot chocolate with mezcal, cinnamon, mole bitters and habanero shrub.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Holy Smoke! It's Mezcal! By John McEvoy

For a long time, ask me what my favorite spirit was and I'd say "gin." But sometime last year, the answer changed to "mezcal." I'm not the only one who's coming around to Mexico's oldest spirit.

I've been interested in mezcal for some time, but it was my ongoing love affair with New York's mezcal-focused bar Mayahuel that really convinced me that mezcal was something special. Since then, I've broadened my exposure to this spirit significantly. I've tried different mezcals from the Del Maguey line. I've learned more about it from blogs, bartenders and liquor stores. But it was reading John McEvoy's Holy Smoke! It's Mezcal! where I really started to feel like I was getting educated. McEvoy, author of the blog Mezcal PhD, has written a well-researched and approachable book on this interesting spirit.

Reading Holy Smoke! gave me a much deeper appreciation for how much variation there is in mezcal and how uniquely tied the spirit is to its source ingredients and terrroir--that is the environmental factors of its production. McEvoy also does a particularly nice job of exploring the history of the rise of tequila's popularity, contrasting that with the (until recently) comparatively slower growth in popularity of mezcal. He even discusses the regulatory differences between the two spirits and the impact of their attainment of Mexican regulatory status--known as the "Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM)"--and international regulatory status--the "Appellation of Origin," which he refers to as being akin to a "Denomination of Origin (DO)." McEvoy credits these certifications as helping to legitimize these spirits in the international market, which in turn helped spur their burgeoning export market. Tequila got its international status in 1978, while mezcal didn't receive it's DO until much later in 1995. Hence, tequila has had a good head start on mezcal, and the latter has a lot of catching up to do.

Critically, mezcal has had to overcome its unfortunate and undeserved reputation. A lot of people think of mezcal as "the bad tequila with a worm in it," which is so so far from the truth. Mezcal isn't tequila at all, rather, tequila is a form of mezcal that's made only with blue weber agave and produced in certain regions of Mexico--primarily Jalisco--as specified in the DO. As tequila has become more popular with time, its production has become quite industrialized to meet that demand. Mezcal, on the other hand, may be made from any of 50 varieties of agave plants (espadin is the most common), is typically made by small-scale producers and is usually produced through more traditional methods, including roasting the agave hearts, known as piñas, in outdoor earthen ovens. This imparts mezcal's signature smoky flavor (tequila, in contrast, is typically pressure-cooked, hence, no smoke). Most mezcals, particularly the better ones, don't come with worms (the widely available brand that does is Monte Alban, which isn't considered a particularly good mezcal by McEvoy, although I'll confess I've never tried it). Much of this information is covered in great depth in the book's opening chapters on the characteristics, history and production of mezcal.

My current selection of mezcal at home. No worms in sight!
The latter part of the book changes focus from making mezcal to drinking it. The important part! There's a chapter on hosting a mezcal tasting, a rundown of all the major brands available in the United States (an updated version appears on McEvoy's website, although the book has more detail about each bottle), and a wonderfully long list of mezcal cocktails. McEvoy acknowledges that some so-called "purists" snub using mezcal in cocktails, but I'm glad that he doesn't feel that way, as I think mezcal cocktails are brilliant. McEvoy did a nice job selecting a mix of drinks that includes some simpler and more complicated cocktails and a few that call specifically for aged mezcal. Many of the drinks call for lime and agave, making them similar to margaritas, but mezcal goes nicely with other flavors too, such as herbal liqueurs like Chartreuse. I've shared the recipes for a few of the drinks I made from the book below (check back on Friday for a list of other cocktails I like to make with mezcal).

While it's becoming easier to find mezcal, selection is still often limited at most liquor stores. During an informal scan of six liquor stores near my home, I found their stock of mezcal ranged from none to a surprisingly good selection (for mezcal, at least) of 10 choices at Magruder's in Chevy Chase. Also promising was that Del Maguey Vida, a very decent entry-priced mezcal that's great in cocktails, was the most commonly available option, although it ranged in price from $35 to $42. You may be surprised that I consider that "entry-level" pricing, but mezcal does not come cheap, with many bottles priced in the $50-$100 range. The only one I've ever seen for less is Monte Alban mezcal, which is the one most everyone, including McEvoy, agrees is not very good. All of these liquor stores have many more times the variety of tequila and in a wider range of prices (at Calvert-Woodley, for example, you can pay as little as $15 for a fifth of "mixto" tequila or as much as $350 for a special aged añejo, whereas mezcal runs $26 to $43). I've been particularly impressed by the selection of mezcals at Eye Street Cellars, which includes quite of few bottles from the Del Maguey line I love so much.

McEvoy and others are doing their part to educate consumers about mezcal, but its sales in the U.S. are still quite small compared to tequila, despite making significant inroads in recent years. According to Fortune magazine, mezcal exports about doubled from 2011 to 2014, rising from 647,989 liters to almost 1.2 million liters. But that's still less than 1 percent of tequila exports, which surpassed 172 million liters in 2014. Yet, if mezcal were to be produced on a scale as large as tequila, it might lose its distinctiveness. Much of its uniqueness comes from the fact that it's produced in smaller quantities by smaller operations employing less industrialized methods. There's also the issue of sustainability, as agave plants take years to mature. Were mezcal production to ramp up dramatically, that crop would have to be very carefully managed. McEvoy's clear appreciations for mezcal comes through as he discusses these issues. And if you devour this book like I did (preferably with a glass of mezcal or a cocktail at your side), I hope you have a growing appreciation for this amazing spirit too.

Selected Cocktails

Below are three drinks I made from the book, all of which are of the "medium" difficulty I would say. If you're going to rim the glass with salt or sugar do that first. Pour the salt or sugar onto a small plate. Moisten the rim of the glass using a cut piece of lime then roll the outer part of the rim through the salt until you have a nice even coating. Lime and lemon juice should also be acquired from fresh fruit. Bottled juices just don't cut it, especially those fake-tasting ones in the plastic containers shaped like citrus fruits.

Sweet Lips
Adapted from a recipe by John McEvoy for Holy Smoke! It's Mezcal!

This drink is seriously spicy. Serrano peppers may be small, but they pack a powerful punch. The two little muddled slices I used for this cocktail gave it a very strong kick. Be warned if you don't like a spicy drink, but if you do, this cocktail is awesome. I love the vanilla with the mezcal. I was attracted to this drink because I had some vanilla syrup on hand, and this was the perfect way to use some of it up.

1-2 slices serrano chile pepper (careful, these are really hot)
1 oz. lemon juice
2 oz. joven mezcal (I used Del Maguey Vida)
1/2 oz. vanilla simple syrup (see note)
1/4 oz. agave nectar
Demerara sugar rim (may use regular sugar too)

Add serrano slices and lemon to a cocktail shaker and muddle. Add the mezcal, vanilla syrup and agave nectar, then fill the shaker with ice. Shake until very cold, then double-strain into a sugar-rimmed rocks glass with ice (see note).

Notes: to make the syrup, combine 1/2 cup sugar (I used demerara sugar), 1/2 cup water in a medium saucepan. Split a vanilla bean down the middle and scrape the seeds into the pan (add the bean pod too). Bring mixture to a boil, stir to ensure sugar dissolves then remove from heat. Allow to cool, then transfer to a container and store in the fridge. To "double-strain" a drink means to use both a typical Hawthorne cocktail strainer in the shaker and a fine-mesh sieve held just above the glass to catch any seeds or little bits from the muddled pepper.

Under the Volcano
Adapted from a recipe from the former restaurant, Los Americanos in New York City

Although this has a chile pepper too, it's far milder than the Sweet Lips drink, although that may depend somewhat on how potent your jalapeño is, since they can range from no hotter than a green bell pepper to oh-my-god-my-mouth-is-on-fire hot. This is a good example of how herbal flavors play well with mezcal.

1 1/2 oz. mezcal joven (I used Marca Negra Espadín)
1 oz. jalapeño-rosemary syrup (see note that follows)
3/4 oz. lime juice
2 dashes bitters (I used Bittermens Xocolatl mole bitters, always a good choice with mezcal, although the recipe in the book calls for teapot bitters)
Salt rim (optional, I omitted this--the book calls for sal con guano, which is salt wth ground up dried worms)

Combine mezcal, jalapeño-rosemary syrup, lime juice and bitters in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until very cold, then strain into a rocks glass filled with ice.

Note: to make the syrup, combine 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water, two jalapeños split and quartered and the leaves from a 4-inch sprig of rosemary in a medium saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat, then set aside to cool. Pour all of the mixture into a container and let it sit in the fridge overnight. Strain after 24 hours (you may leave the jalapeño in longer for more heat). Store in the fridge and use within a week.

Mom's Mezcal Margarita
Adapted from a recipe by John McEvoy for Holy Smoke! It's Mezcal!

I really liked this drink a lot and not just because I thought it was sweet that McEvoy said his mom enjoys mezcal margaritas this way. I've had plenty of mezcal margaritas, but I'd never seen one with brandy before. And the Peychaud's bitters give a lovely light pink color.

2 oz. joven mezcal (I used Del Maguey Vida)
1/2 oz. brandy (I used Laird's Applejack, an apple brandy)
2 oz. lime juice
1 oz. agave nectar
3 dashes Peychaud's bitters (these are red, which makes the drink a nice pink color)
Salt on the rim (optional)
Lime wedge garnish (optional)

Combine the mezcal, brandy, lime juice, agave nectar and bitters in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until very cold, then strain into a rocks glass with ice. If you prefer, rim the glass with salt before pouring the drink and garnish with a lime wedge.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Restaurant: Espita Mezcaleria (Washington, D.C.)

"Espita" is Spanish for "spigot," and, if you're at D.C.'s newest Mexican restaurant, Espita Mezcaleria, that spigot is pouring our some pretty amazing mezcal. Get ready to drink up.

I've made no secret of my love for mezcal. I'll have several posts about it this week (including a look at John McEvoy's excellent book, Holy Smoke! It's Mezcal!). And mole, the spicy-rich Mexican chili sauce that often contains a long list of ingredients such as chocolate and nuts, is amazing. When I learned that a restaurant would be opening in D.C. focusing on both mezcal and mole, I could barely contain my excitement. These are two of my favorite Mexican things--a really good reason for why I should visit Oaxaca, the southern Mexico state that's known for producing the best of both these.

Let's start with the drinks. If you like drinking mezcal neat, Espita stocks over 70 bottles. That's an amazing variety, far more than at any U.S. liquor store I've ever visited. Mezcal is distilled from agave, and with over 70 choices here, there's a nice variety of agave present: 20 are made from espadin agave, the most common variety for mezcal; 40 are made from other agave varieties; 8 are ensembles, which are blends of different agaves; and 5 are pechugas, which are traditionally made with a raw chicken breast (seriously, there are three such examples here, plus one made from turkey and another with corn).

Looking to go beyond mezcal? You can, of course, have tequila, of which they have 10 varieties, but you can get that anywhere. Instead, why not try a sotol, raicilla or bacanora? Not familiar with them? These are three other varieties of Mexican spirits--the latter two of which are also made from agave (sotol is made from desert spoon, an agave cousin). Espita may not be the first D.C. bar to stock these other spirits, but they are not very common, and I know of no D.C. liquor store that is currently stocking sotol (although Ace will order it for you). By my count, that's more choices than you can get at Mayahuel, New York's mezcal-focused bar we raved about last year. Flights are available for trying a mix of these great spirits. Credit for this amazing selection goes to Josh Phillips, Espita's master mezcalier (like a sommelier is to wine, Philips is to mezcal).

Left: Mayahuel; Right: Smiling Rabbit

If, like us, you're more into cocktails, you'll be happy here too. Beverage director Megan Barnes has assembled a thoughtful cocktail menu sorted into three categories: refreshing highballs, citrusy shaken drinks, and high-powered all-liquor cocktails. I began the night with La Llorona, an impressively dark mix of mezcal, bitters, vermouth and Mexican fernet. The licorice fragrance of absinthe is noticeable in the Quiet Rebel, but it doesn't overpower this concoction of mezcal, cognac and sweet vermouth. Looking for something more like a margarita? Try the Mayahuel, a tart mezcal cocktail with triple sec, lime, agave and a rim of sal de gusano (not sure what that is? it's a type of salt, but you might want to look it up first). My favorite drink of the night was the Smiling Rabbit, made from bitter Suze, lemon, pineapple and cinnamon adorably garnished with two pineapple leaves arranged to look like bunny ears. Cute and tasty!

Espita's menu should please most Mexican food fiends. Like the drinks, the menu focuses on the flavors of Oaxaca, developed by executive chef Alexis Samayoa, an alum of WD-50 and Empellon Taqueria, the latter of which recently won us over as our current favorite Mexican restaurant in New York. Mole and tacos are the star attractions, with 7-8 choices of each. Moles range from starter-size portions like the Mole Poblano served with carrots and parsnips to the larger Mole Negro with lamb neck, which our server explained is really meant for two. Tacos come in a nice variety of vegetarian, seafood and meat choices.

Skirt Steak Tacos

Those taco fillings are folded into some of the best corn tortillas I've ever had. They are amazingly good, fragrant with masa and the perfect thickness to keep from disintegrating while not coming across as too chewy. Our sever explained that a woman comes in early each day to grind the corn and cook the tortillas. They also fry their own chips from these tortillas, and they are the best tortilla chips I've had in a restaurant. An order of freshly made guacamole, served in the traditional manner with jalapeño, onion and cilantro, is a must, simply to have an excuse to munch on these amazing chips. The guacamole itself is pretty special too, giving Oyamel a run for its money as the city's best avocado dip.

Kale Salad

Another early arrival to the table was the kale salad. I'll admit, this wasn't a priority order. I wanted something green so we didn't feel like complete pigs. But man, if that salad didn't turn out to be one our favorite items of the evening. It was really good! The kale was chopped into nicely manageable pieces and served with candied walnuts, queso fresco, pasilla chiles and a sweet agave vinaigrette.

Next up was our taco order. We limited ourselves to one (one order of two tacos that is--orders come with your choice of two or three tacos) and went with the skirt steak. I could have eaten this all night. It was amazing. The tender chunks of grilled steak had a nice char around the edges and were garnished with cilantro and a spicy salsa. On my next visit, I must make a point of ordering the grilled tilapia tacos with pickled carrot, cabbage slaw and chipotle mayo, as that sounds pretty amazing also. Word is that the lamb barbacoa tacos are also excellent.

Mole Coloradito

Our moles arrived as our main course. While good, this was probably the least exciting portion of our dinner. Perhaps our expectations were too high, but we found both of the moles we ordered to be fine but not exceptional. The Coloradito features pork belly fanned above a dark mole made with ancho and guajillo chiles, roasted tomatoes and plantains and garnished with breakfast radishes. I really liked the pork belly, but I wish there had been more mole sauce and less garnish. Our other mole was the Pipian, pork ribs smothered with a green tomatillo mole. This mole was really good, and those incredible tortillas are perfect for sopping up some of that sauce, but our pork ribs were surprisingly dry, perhaps overcooked. Everything else we ate was so amazing that I was rather surprised the moles didn't impress us as much.

Tres Leches Cake
The kitchen came roaring back with dessert though. The selection here is limited--there are just two choices--but the tres leches cake was dynamite good. This is one of our favorite desserts (I make it myself sometimes), and this version, served with apples, caramel sauce and caramel ice cream was the sweetest perfection.

Service at Espita was very good, surprisingly good actually given that the place was packed and I was worried our server might not reappear as needed, as sometimes happens at really busy places. But she showed up just in time to get us more drinks and more tortillas. Other servers who appeared to take plates and fill our water glasses were equally friendly. We felt we taken care of here of.

Between courses, take a moment to pause and enjoy the restaurant's colorful murals, which were painted by Oaxacan street artist Yescka. I didn't snap a good picture of them, but my friend Jessica of The Dining Traveler got a good shot when she visited. The interior has a wonderful vibe and yes, it's a bit noisy, but that's pretty common these days.

Given my love for Mexican food, and mezcal and Oaxacan cuisine in particular, my expectations for Espita were pretty high. I'm glad to say that we were definitely satisfied with our first experience here and plan to visit again soon. The food and drinks were excellent, as was the service. D.C. is sadly underserved when it comes to good Mexican food. Espita definitely does its part to help fill that void.

Espita Mezcaleria, 1250 9th St. NW (on the corner at N Street NW), Washington, D.C. (Shaw, across from the Convention Center). (202) 621-9695. Reservations: Open Table.