Espita Mezcaleria plans to go through one ton of Oaxacan heirloom corn kernels a month to make its tortillas in house. Deliveries from purveyor Masienda come in at night, and a team of employees arrive before dawn to soak, boil, grind, and season the corn, then fashion the dough into small discs. The whole process takes 12 hours start to finish.
“A bad tortilla, when you pick it up, it’s going to break on you,” says chef Alexis Samayoa, who comes to D.C. from New York, where he’s worked at a number of top Mexican restaurants. But there will be no need to double wrap tacos thanks to the pliable, non-crumbling tortillas at this Oaxacan restaurant and mezcal bar, which opens in Shaw tonight.
The tortillas are just one example of the artisanal attitude that owner and Master Mezcalier Josh Phillips hopes will shine through at Espita Mezcaleria. That extends to his collection of about 85 mezcals, which will be available by the ounce and in flights; mezcal cocktails will also be available. (Y&H will have much more on Espita Mezcaleria’s mezcal and the increasing popularity of the agave spirit in this week’s print column, so stay tuned.)
While mezcal is no doubt one of the main attractions, the menu also aims to expand diners’ understanding of mole. It’s not just the sweet, brown chocolatey sauce you might think of. Samayoa explains that “mole” just means mixed. Yes, that technically makes guacamole a mole. Samayoa’s menu features eight moles in all, each served with a different meat like lamb neck, short rib, or pork belly. “One is yellow. One is pure black. Light green. Scarlet red,” he explains of the variety.
Aside from tacos, ceviches will be another menu highlight. Don’t expect them to be overly cured: “I don’t want soupy tomato stuff,” Samayoa says. “I think it’s really inappropriate that a fish died in vain because somebody soaked it in some kind of acid.” Think almost more sashimi than ceviche.
The space itself is very art-focused with a large mural on the wall from Mexican street artist Yescka. Phillips says when he and his wife, Kelly Phillips, were in Oaxaca studying mezcal, they saw Yescka’s street art everywhere they went.
When it came time to work on the design of the restaurant, Phillips found the artist online and wrote him an email, asking if he could buy one of his pieces and have a local artist recreate it. But after hearing about the restaurant’s efforts to support small producers in Oaxaca, Yescka offered one better: He’d fly to D.C. and do it himself.
The resulting mural depicts Monarch butterflies—”natural immigrants”—flying between a young girl and a skeleton. “This is Yescka’s interpretation of the state of modern immigration,” Phillips says. “Sometimes when you’re an immigrant, you find life, love, and happiness. Sometimes you find political corruption and death.”
Phillips’ family also contributed to the design. His sister, Rachel Aikens, who operates a design firm in New York, oversaw the look of the place. And Phillips’ mom painted rabbits in the restrooms. In one story in Aztec mythology, the goddess of agave and fertility gave birth to 400 drunken rabbit demigods—some good, some evil.
Phillips’ own art contribution? The handwriting on the menus.
Espita Mezcaleria, 1250 9th St. NW; (202) 621-9695; espitadc.com
Photo by Darrow Montgomery