City Paper is not for tourists
The fried chicken wing tacos at Espita Mezcaleria are dressed with a 12-ingredient lime cashew crema, 13-ingredient “chicken salt” made from aggressively spiced crispy chicken skin, and a 24-ingredient salsa that includes five types of chiles, smoked paprika, toasted cashews, apples, golden raisins, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, and onions.
It takes multiple days to make all the components. The labor-intensive salsa isn’t used in any other dishes on the Shaw restaurant’s Oaxacan-inspired menu that includes everything from ceviche and Wagyu beef crudo to a lamb rib and neck dressed in mole. Each order of two fried chicken wing tacos costs $12.
“I hear a lot of people say things like, ‘The tacos are amazing at Espita, but they should cost $3,’” partner Josh Phillips says. “I feel so strongly that not all tacos have to be $3.”
Fifty-three percent of Espita’s 70 one- and two-star Yelp reviews talk about the food being overpriced. Most are from 2016, when the restaurant opened with a different chef. Current Executive Chef Robert Aikens joined the team in the summer of 2017. “I literally just paid $18 for 3 of the smallest ‘tacos’ I’ve ever had. No side either. Seriously? This place is so pretentious it is almost funny,” wrote David D. “Why is [it] that nowadays all the new Mexican/Latin restaurants in D.C. are so pretentious? Is it that hard to serve dishes that people are familiar with and have reasonable prices?” PC K. asks.
Even $3 is too much for customers at El Sol and Mezcalero, where tacos range from $2.75 to $3.50. “A lot of people complain about the price being too high,” owner Alfredo Solis says. He keeps prices low to be competitive even though he makes almost everything from scratch. “I don’t want to make a lot of money—I just want to pay my employees and my rent,” he says.
Phillips and Solis are frustrated by the assumption that Mexican food has to be cheap no matter how much a chef spends on ingredients or how much an operator shells out for labor or rent. While other immigrant cuisines have diversified to offer meals at a variety of price points, customers expect Mexican food to remain cheap.
Phillips points to Italian cuisine as an example of this dichotomy. The same diners who order $9 dishes of purchased linguini and marinara sauce at a casual place like Dupont Italian Kitchen don’t blink about paying $18 at The Red Hen for house-made pasta swirled with premium ingredients on special occasions.
Even Indian cuisine is evolving. “Look at Rasika,” Phillips says. “What they’ve done is wonderful … I’m not sure why that’s more accepted, or how long it took to be accepted.”
This feeling resonates in the wider food world. When asked about Mexican food on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” in 2016, Anthony Bourdain called it “the most undervalued, underappreciated world cuisine with tremendous, tremendous potential.” “I think we should pay more attention to it, learn more about it, and value it more,” he wrote. “This is frankly a racist assumption that Mexican food or Indian food should be cheap.”
“Go over to El Sol and you can get an excellent taco for $3,” Phillips says. “There and Taqueria Habanero, it’s hard to beat what you’re getting for the money.” The cheapest taco at Espita costs $5.50. That $2.50 difference isn’t huge, but in order to get customers to pay that difference, Phillips has to provide value when it comes to ingredients, ambience, drinks, and service.
“There are people who are charging exorbitant prices for a taco that don’t deserve the money,” Phillips says. According to him, a chicken tinga taco that costs $5 or $6 is a rip- off if it’s just 20 cents worth of braised chicken and a simple guajillo salsa on a store-bought tortilla. If the tortillas were homemade, that could justify the price.
Mexican restaurants and taquerias have three choices when it comes to corn tortillas. They can purchase them like Taco Bamba, make their own starting from a corn flour base like El Sol and Mezcalero, or make the tortillas from scratch by grinding their own corn in house like Espita.
“You can’t put good pizza on bad crust,” Phillips says. He studies what other restaurants serve and believes Espita is one of the few local restaurants, along with Oyamel, that grinds its own corn.
Espita carries five varieties of corn from Mexico and displays the pillow-sized white sacks by the side exit. A team of cooks comes in at 6 a.m. each morning to start the process of washing and grinding the corn. By 2 p.m. most days, they will have produced a couple thousand tortillas that are utilized for tacos, chips, and tostadas.
Union Kitchen Grocery sits across the street from Espita. Tasting their packaged corn tortillas side-by-side with Espita’s house-made version is revealing. After both were warmed on the restaurant’s plancha, one tasted deeply of corn and was sturdy enough to hold juicy toppings. The other tasted like a paper napkin and crumbled.
Many customers hit up Espita for its selection of mezcal. Pours of the agave-derived spirit or cocktails that utilize it aren’t cheap for a reason. The bar’s rail mezcal, El Buho, costs about $50 a bottle locally, while other rail liquors cost closer to $12. “This isn’t to talk shit on whiskey or vodka,” Phillips says, “but they start with a raw material that’s cheap, plentiful, replenishes fast, and doesn’t take a ton of labor.”
Agave is dangerous to harvest. “If you’re walking through an agave field and you trip, you can impale yourself,” Phillips says. “There are scorpions and rattlesnakes. It’s hot, backbreaking labor.”
It annoys him when customers are willing to shell out money for quality agave spirits, but not the food that pairs with it. He compares the situation to a hypothetical French restaurant, where it would seem silly to pair an expensive bottle of Bordeaux with a $6 croque madame.
Positive reviews from Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema have brought attention to Espita’s upscale cuisine. The success of similar fancy Mexican spots like Oyamel and Rosa Mexicano, both of which have done booming business on 7th Street NW for more than a decade, can partially be attributed to their prime locations.
Chef Victor Albisu operates five Taco Bamba locations in the region and will soon open a new upscale Mexican restaurant, Poca Madre, downtown. He agrees with Phillips that Mexican food, unlike some other immigrant cuisines, has been pigeonholed at a certain price point. “I’m not calling anyone racist,” he says. “It’s just an idea that’s ingrained—that this is cheap food.”
Taco Bamba serves traditional tacos like carne asada and chorizo for $3.50 each and more unconventional “tacos nuestros,” like “The Patito,” with roasted duck carnitas, mole verde, and pickled radicchio slaw, for $4.50 each. Among their non-taco offerings are nachos, sopes, tortas, and quesadillas.
The restaurant’s pricing gets a mixed response from customers, according to Albisu. Some think the tacos are too expensive, and others think they’re getting a bargain because the tacos are generously stuffed. “We get a lot of people through Taco Bamba who take pictures and say, ‘We can do this at home,’” Albisu says. “There are a lot of misconceptions about tacos. It’s street food and should be honored as such, but the way we do it is pretty unique. The way chefs are tackling tacos now deserves to bury the conversation about the $1 taco.”
Thanks to price inflation due to rising rents, minimum wage increases, and the climbing costs of certain ingredients, $1 tacos are becoming elusive, but diners still expect them. In a one-star review of Taco Bamba on Yelp, user Tracy D. wrote “They could learn a thing or two from Chipotle. What really got us was the prices for the food because it really wasn’t worth it… We were still hungry and ended up going to McDonald’s afterwards. Should’ve just gone there first.”
Recently a customer came into Taco Bamba and requested an off-menu avocado taco. Albisu charged him $3 and encountered pushback. “I put a whole avocado in that taco and they cost us between $1.25 and $1.50,” the chef says. “They’re like gold. They should be traded publicly.”
The price of a case of about 50 avocados fluctuates between $55 and $120, according to Phillips. “When you look at the price of guacamole around town it’s as cheap as $7 or $8 for mass-produced grey guacamole to upwards of $20,” he says. He fantasizes about selling guacamole for “market price,” much like how restaurants label certain seafood. Phillips and Albisu also point out that when customers look at tacos, they see diced and shredded vegetables on top of pieces of meat, which makes it difficult to judge how much of the ingredients the chefs are utilizing.
Albisu is banking on Washingtonians’ willingness to spend more on Mexican cuisine when he opens Poca Madre in May. He’s interested in Mexican cuisine’s ties to indigenous cultures, which will be reflected on the upscale restaurant’s menu.
“There’s an inherent magic about the food,” he says. “Honoring these cultures is a big thing for me.” He talks about how indigenous populations built flavor by using a variety of chiles to create refined recipes centuries ago. Poca Madre will focus on celebrating ingredients and modernizing dishes.
Albisu is more optimistic than some that perceptions are changing. “For years people have elevated Italian or Asian food and found a lot of success and acclaim—Mexican food is having its moment in a lot of ways.” Upscale Mexican restaurants are receiving critical acclaim and pushing the cuisine’s boundaries in other cities from Cosme, Toloache 50, and Claro BK in New York to Mi Tocaya in Chicago, Broken Spanish in Los Angeles, Cala in San Francisco, and Xochi in Houston.
“If you had opened Espita 50 years ago at the equivalent price point, we would have opened with several months of cash on hand and then we’d close when that cash ran out,” Phillips says. “We’ve made a lot of progress. The vast majority of our guests walk through our doors thinking they’re waking into a nice restaurant that happens to be Mexican.”
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