Laura Hayes

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“Say the ‘T’ out of the side of your mouth,” Espita Mezcaleria General Manager Josh Phillips instructs. Tlayuda is a Zapotec word and refers to the signature bar snack in the Mezcal-producing region of Mexico. Tlayudas are to Oaxaca as cheesesteaks are to Philadelphia, Phillips explains. “I’ve gotten into so many drunken arguments about who makes the best tlayuda in Oaxaca.” 

Espita (1250 9th St. NW) used to have several tlayuda variations on the menu, but when new executive chef Robert Aikens took over last year, he was determined to perfect the dish. A tlayuda is complex, with layers of flavor and texture. It requires days of prep work to make one. “You can make it at home, no problem—I’ll see you in a week,” Aikins jokes. “I always think it’s funny when people describe it as ‘the big taco,’ Phillips adds.

Here’s what goes into Espita’s caloric explosion that costs $17 during dinner and $14 during daily happy hour:

  • A layer of refried red beans that are cooked with a sofrito of roasted vegetables, charred fresno chiles, guajillo chiles, smoked paprika, cilantro, oregano, and other spices.
  • Queso Oaxaca made from mozzarella cheese curd
  • Blue corn tortilla fried with pork lard known as asiento
  • Pork belly and pork shoulder cured for 24 hours in salt, cumin, coriander, garlic, sugar, oregano, smoked paprika, cinnamon, and bay leaves. Then the pork is marinated for another 24 hours in several kinds of chiles, cumin, garlic, clove, coriander, annatto seeds, cinnamon, allspice, vinegar, and pineapple.
  • Shredded raw white cabbage
  • Red onions and jalapeños pickled with cumin, mustard seeds, smoked paprika, chile de árbol, and other spices
  • Salsa roja made from roasted tomato and guajillo chiles, onions, garlic, cider vinegar, and lime juice
  • House-made hot sauce with Fresno and habanero chiles, raw garlic, and annatto seeds blended and fermented for a total of three weeks