Espita Mezcaleria – 1250 9th Street NW
When I first heard that a Oaxacan restaurant that would specialize in mezcal was opening in DC I basically stalked them right until they opened. Luckily DC has many blogs and food obsessed people like me, that track liquor licences, construction troubles, chef hirings and the like so you can track a new place’s every move. It took way longer than I would like but Espita is finally here and I am confident, here to stay. Usually it takes me a while to get to a new restaurant, especially in a neighborhood as hot as Shaw but there was very little waiting on this one, partially because it actually takes reservations, hurrah!! I was going to post this a couple of weeks ago but I got scooped by Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post, who also agrees you have got to head over there ASAP.
First about the setting – another typical industrial type space with hard surfaces making it tough to hear yourself think but with lovely little Mexican touches to distinguish it from the rest. Very cool murals on the wall (hello Frida Kahlo on the way to the ladies room) give the vibrant punch you want at a Mexican place and the servers are relaxed and friendly. We weren’t there more than 15 minutes when someone who had clearly sampled some mezcal dropped a glass on those concrete floors. Totally nonplussed, the staff cleaned it up quickly and handled it with grace (and remember this is right after they opened.) Start with a mezcal, even if you think you don’t like it. Most mezcals people have tried are extremely smoky versions of tequila and that’s it. Espita wants to educate you about the whole range from smoky to fruity to earthy.
They have flights as well as different sized pours so you can really work your way through the impressive menu. This is not stuff you just knock back quickly (not when some can run you $20 a shot!) but rather sip and enjoy. A cute touch is the small pours are in candle holders from a church supply house – you will spot a small cross at the bottom. All of the servers are really knowledgable so ask for their thoughts if you need a steer. To go along with the straight mezcal they also have a terrific cocktail selection. I highly recommend the Mayahuel if you are just getting the hang of things, as it’s the closest to a margarita you are going to find. Wine and beer round out the list as well as the much beloved Mexican Coke for those of you who don’t drink.
Now that you are refreshed don’t sleep on the chips and salsa. While some places serve these gratias, at Espita you have to order them. TOTALLY WORTH IT. Each salsa is three dollars a pop and unbelievably flavorful. They rotate the menu with lots of interesting flavors and are listed on the menu from mild to hot so you know what you are getting in to. When this place says hot, they mean it, but not in a scorch the inside of your mouth way, in a flavorful and purposeful way. The chips that accompany the salsa are light as air, hot from the fryer and perfectly salty.
Another good start your meal are the shishitos peppers (listed as a side but great as an ap). If you remember from this post, these peppers can be mild or hot so it’s a fun game of Russian roulette. They also have a nice list of ceviches which will be perfect as the weather gets hotter. Just don’t fill up too soon before you hit the taco list.
Tacos can be ordered with 2 or 3 included which is nice when you are trying to share with a group. Pretty much everything on the menu could be shared but I wouldn’t really call it a “small plates” restaurant. The servers are great about letting you space out your order and not rushing through the meal so I suggest having a flight with your aps and then decide on what’s next. The taco menu hits all the faves, fish, al pastor, chicken, but they are all done with authentic ingredients like pickled cabbage and knob onions. There are also some different faces at the party, notably these lamb barbacoa tacos. The gameness of the lamb is a great match to the smokey chipolte salsa and raw onion. Just amazing.
Moles take up another whole section of the menu. Most people who haven’t travelled in Mexico extensively have only ever had chicken mole with a slightly bitter, chocolate based sauce. Now you will know what you have been missing. Moles are highly complex and layered sauces that require a lot of love and attention. Luckily at Espita you can simply order from the 6 or 7 they offer. Pictured below is the Pipan, the mole sauce is made with pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, and is draped over fall-off-the-bone pork ribs. Zero resemblance to some of the sad brown dishes I have seen at other Mexican spots.
Espita just announced that they are doing lunch service for those lucky ducks that work near Shaw. It has been a while since I have eaten at a place and left feeling so inspired. Thursday I will post my attempt at those delicious lamb tacos and next Tuesday I will do my riff on their habanero salsa/hot sauce. That way you will be all set for your Cinco de Mayo celebrations. Or better yet – there are still reservations open, book fast!