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Next month, when Mixtec celebrates its 28th anniversary in Adams Morgan, owner Pepe Montesinos plans to officially unveil the long-awaited deli/grocery/takeout shop next to his landmark Mexican restaurant. The carryout menu will include, interestingly enough, pizza and pastas. Don’t ask Montesinos why—unless you have an hour to hear his life story.
Allow me to save you the time: The Oaxacan native immigrated to the United States in 1965, with the grand idea that he would enroll at the Air Force Academy and become a fighter pilot. That dream proved elusive for a Mexican with limited connections. Instead, Montesinos started working as a waiter at the now-shuttered A.V. Ristorante Italiano in 1970 while studying business and economics at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore. Montesinos considered the late Augusto Vasaio, who founded A.V. in 1949, his mentor. Vasaio, he says, “was one of the most important people in my life.”
It was at A.V. that Montesinos realized the culinary connections between his native country and Italy. (Got another hour to spare? Ask Montesinos about the history of tomatoes.) It was then that Montesinos also realized he wanted a place of his own. “Every homework that I had [in college], I always wrote about the restaurant that I had in my mind,” Montesinos remembers.
His homework became reality in 1978, when Montesinos opened Enriqueta’s on M Street NW in Georgetown. It was an immediate hit in a town that had choked down one too many enchiladas smothered in Velveeta. “Put aside any Tex-Mex preconceptions. Enriqueta’s is an authentic Mexican restaurant with a menu listing a variety of styles of cooking, tastes and textures, only a few of them hot,” Phyllis Richman wrote in her 1979 Washington Post Dining Guide. “Enriqueta’s will teach you something you are glad to know about Mexican food.”
Two years later, in 1980, Montesinos opened Mixtec, then only a grocery store designed to help the budding restaurateur import much-needed ingredients from Mexico. The grocery morphed into a taqueria in 1982, which became a problem when Montesinos decided to open a second Enriqueta’s just a few doors down on Columbia Road NW. Mixtec and Enriqueta’s ended up competing against each other for D.C.’s limited Mexican dining dollar, since locals apparently couldn’t distinguish between a taqueria and the more fully developed menu at Enriqueta’s. In the mid-1980s, Montesinos—and here’s the important part, finally—transformed the second Enriqueta’s into Trattoria Garibaldi, a short-lived Italian spot.
Montesinos, in other words, is not just adding Italian food to his takeout operation for the hell of it. He has experience with the cuisine, has affection for it, and even feels a connection between his mother’s cooking back in Oaxaca and the stuff turned out in rustic Italian kitchens.
The line of pizzas and pastas at the new carryout will be Montesinos’ own attempt to keep the spirit of A.V.—both the restaurant and his old friend—alive. Montesinos has even hired Virginia Williams, who cooked at A.V. for 40 years, to make his pies and pastas, which will, of course, include that mouthwatering white pizza that you just had to order every time you stepped foot into A.V. But Montesinos has also developed a few of his own pies, which could make you forget all about A.V.’s most famous round. Personally, I’m looking forward to a pair of Montesinos’ creations: one pie with tomatillos and roasted pork and another with Oaxacan mole.
Montesinos says he might also sell meat loaf and some traditional sandwiches. That may sound like yet another oddball addition to his Mexican operation, but it all makes sense to Montesinos, a man with his feet planted in Mexico, his adopted America, and the Southern Italy of his old mentor. “Eventually, we’ll do the three cuisines,” Montesinos promises, “the Mexican, the American, and the Italian concept.”
The Chef Who Came Out of the Cold
Barton Seaver looked a little glassy-eyed when he showed up for our scheduled lunch last month at Surfside, the Glover Park seafood grill owned by his buddy, chef David Scribner. Seaver apologized for being slightly out of it; he’s battling a bug, he said, and was still feeling the effects of the medicinal hot toddy he sucked down last night.
Seaver agreed to meet so we could talk about what his future holds. It had been, after all, more than two months since he split from Hook, the sustainable seafood house in Georgetown that he almost single-handedly designed, and I hadn’t heard a thing about his whereabouts. The funny thing, Seaver told me right after sitting down, is that within hours of resigning from Hook, he was presented with a chance to work for one of D.C.’s best-known and highest-end restaurants. He declined to return that phone call (or to name the restaurant publicly—sorry!).
He has his reasons for not wanting to jump back into the kitchen: He realized one day that he “hated” the people who were done with work and walking the streets at 6:30 p.m. “They were providing me with a reflection of my choices,” he said, choices that included the long days and nights of a chef. “Everyone should have a reasonable work day. I just never had one.”
Seaver’s striving for a reasonable work life will likely not include running or cooking at a restaurant. “I’m really not interested in that,” he said. Instead, Seaver has a number of ideas and projects that he’s developing. Top among them are a pair of TV shows that he’s shopping—one a cooking show, the other a program “looking at the people behind sustainable food.” Seaver hopes to “follow the PBS model. That’s where I want to end up.”
No matter what Seaver eventually does, he plans to move beyond a message of sustainability, a focus that he now believes may be too narrow. It’s not enough, Seaver says, to merely sustain, say, a fish stock at 6 percent of its historic population; we need to start rebuilding populations. One idea he’s promoting concerns a new way to rethink and refashion commercial aquaculture facilities so that we can “feed more people with fewer fish.” He also wants to take these new technologies to developing countries where they can start building their own new generation of aquaculture facilities—and start building whole new economies.
More immediately, of course, Seaver just wanted to shake his cold, and he shared his recipe for a rhinovirus-slaying hot toddy.
Barton Seaver’s Medicinal Hot Toddy*
• Your tea of choice (to your desired strength)
• Juice and rinds of 3 lemons
• 5 tablespoons honey or maple syrup (Seaver prefers the syrup)
• 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
• 3 teaspoons cinnamon, ground, or 1 cinnamon stick, broken up
Place all ingredients in a pot filled with 4 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Take off boil, strain, and drink.
Personal note from Seaver: “I thought the toddy was great with a shot of Calvados in it. Bourbon, rum, or brandy would work well, too, depending on your preference.”
*Cautionary note from Carman: Measurements are approximate. The poor dude was sick, after all, and not precisely measuring out every damn ingredient.
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