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.

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