Were we still in Shaw? Or had we been magically teleported to Oaxaca? We had visited this southern Mexican state years ago, and the cooking and decor of Espita Mezcaleria brought back pleasant memories. And, at this amazing restaurant, I actually ate worms. More about that later.
Espita’s creators believe that “you eat with your eyes first, and the art on the walls should be as engaging as the food on your plate.” Working with designer Rachel Aikens of Reid & Taylor Studio in New York City, they crafted a warm yet industrial interior with authentic Oaxacan art. Murals were created by Yescka, a renowned Oaxacan street artist, and Kate DeCiccio, a local stencil artist and educator.
Espita’s restroom walls are decorated with enormous rabbits, painted by Sandra Phillips, a Philadelphia-based artist who also designed Espita’s logo. The huge bunnies are inspired by images of the Centzon Totochtin, children of the Aztec goddess Mayahuel and her husband Petecatl. The custom-designed ceiling is made from reclaimed wood, which also appears in benches, bar stools, and host stands.
However, on a warm day we lunched outside. While perusing executive chef Alexis Samayoa’s eclectic menu, diners may sip (very slowly) a potent Mayaheul – a mezcal margarita rimmed with spicy sal de gusano. After all, this year-old restaurant specializes in mezcal, the fiery Mexican liquor, similar to tequila, distilled from the agave plant.
We began with “classic” guacamole, nice and chunky with just enough onion, jalapeno, and cilantro. From the salsa list we chose verde asado, a melange of roasted tomatillo, serrano (peppers), and garlic. The hamachi (Japanese amberjack) ceviche was enlivened with roasted rhubarb, beets, and diced jicama. The last delivered a pleasing crunch. A duo of shrimp tacos was poised on golden-orange-hued guajillo chili tortillas, escorted by raison mezcal salsa and purple mustard “frills” (leaves). We were tempted by the elote – corn on the cob coated with spices and mayo – a popular Mexican street food. Espita’s corn is imported from Mexico. The heirloom corn is ground into masa daily and fashioned into tortillas and tortilla chips, which are made early each morning. Among Espita’s soups, the smoked eggplant and cochinata pebil (roast pork butt) looked intriguing, as did several varieties of mole. Next time.
Oh yes, those worms. The bartender identified the lip-tingling spice rimming my margarita glass as sal de gusano, a traditional Oaxacan mixture of sea salt, chilies, and ground agave worms. The worms often lurk in mezcal bottles.
Located at 1250 Ninth St. NW, Espita Mezcaleria is open daily for lunch and dinner; call 202-621-9695 or visit www.espitadc.com.
In Petworth, Taqueria del Barrio has launched a happy hour and late-night specials with Mexican dishes and potables. Happy hour on Tuesdays through Fridays goes from 4 to 8 p.m., with margaritas, “seasonal punch,” beer, and wine. Among food specials are crispy, “gringo” beef-filled tacos, guacamole, mini torta Mexican sandwiches, and nachos topped with homemade mole. Late-night happy hour runs from 9 p.m. until closing on Tuesdays through Fridays, with chicken taquitos and half-price empanadas. The latter are a specialty of husband-and-wife owners Shawn and Anna Leis, who also operate DC Empanadas in Union Market.
Taqueria del Barrio is located at 821 Upshur St. NW; call 202-723-0200 or visit www.taqueriadelbarrio.com.
Across the street is Ruta del Vino, the Latin-American wine bar which opened about two months ago. The decor is bright and cheery, with a lively, multisided bar and sprightly light fixtures. There’s outdoor seating. Greeting guests is a hostess stand fashioned from a vintage Philco radio.
A dinner highlight is smoked octopus with black garlic cream and ancho chilies. Other options are roasted beet salad, three varieties of ceviche, fish tacos, carne asada, and parrillada mixta (for two), a generous platter heaped with hanger steak, homemade chorizo, chicken confit, black beans, and more.
The brunch menu offers chilaquiles – a sort of Mexican-style lasagna layered with fried corn tortillas, salsa verde, Oaxacan cheese, and choice of chicken, grilled steak, or black beans, crowned with a pair of sunny side eggs. We’ve ordered the dish with beef, which was rather chewy but flavorful. Blue corn waffles (four of them) are flanked by delicious pork belly glazed with ancho maple and a crisp watercress salad.
The place is named Wine Route (in English) for a reason. The extensive South American wine list offers vintages from Argentina, Chile, and even Mexico. From Uruguay we tasted Garzon, an excellent albarino, a grape better known in Spain and Portugal.
Located at 800 Upshur St. NW, Ruta del Vino is open daily; call 202-248-4469 or visit www.rutadelvinodc.com.
Rise Above It
Not far away is a tasty, healthful way to start your day: Uprising Muffin Company, 1817 Seventh St. NW, near the Howard Theatre. Umpteen kinds of muffins are baked from scratch, sans preservatives or other additives. Choose fillings from the likes of bacon, egg and cheddar, chicken sausage. Flavors encompass banana walnut, pumpkin, lemon poppy seed, cranberry walnut. These treats go well with Uprising’s small-batch Stumptown Coffee. Uprising is open daily for breakfast and lunch; call 202-290-1196 or visit www.uprisingmuffins.com.
Wine ‘n’ Music in Ivy City
If all goes well, the rapidly developing Ivy City is getting yet another restaurant, City Winery. To be located on Okie Street NE, next to Ivy City Smokehouse, the ambitious endeavor will also have a rooftop bar and 300-350-seat concert venue. According to Bisnow, Douglas Development is working with City Winery to unveil the project by the end of this year. City Winery already has locations in New York, Chicago, Nashville, and Atlanta, with plans to open another Washington venue in the Navy Yard sometime this fall.
Hit the Roof
In Bloomingdale the funky Big Bear Cafe plans to soar upwards – with a second floor and rooftop. The addition will nearly quadruple the size of the 11-year-old neighborhood favorite, from 49 to 194 seats. There’s also a 68-seat patio and a lovely garden. Located at 1700 First St. NW (at R Street), Big Bear is open daily. Call 202-643-9222 or visit www.bigbearcafe-dc.com.
Italian Comes to Shaw
A&B Hospitality, the team behind Brickside Food+Drink, has unveiled Capo Italian Deli in Shaw. Created by Andy Seligman and Brian Vasile, Capo dispenses hot and cold subs and familiar Italian entrees and sides. Customers may build their own salads and sandwiches using Boar’s Head quality meats, or they may order from the menu. Hot sub options encompass meatball parmigiana, Italian sausage and peppers, chicken parmesan, and in-house cooked roast beef. Cold: Italian combo with salami, capicola and provolone, pastrami-seasoned turkey breast, homemade tuna salad. To any sandwich add Capo’s homemade Italian dressing, also available for purchase by the bottle. Also available for purchase are custom-sliced cold cuts.
Open daily for lunch and dinner, Capo Deli is located at 715 Florida Ave. NW. To order carryout, call 202-827-8012. For more information visit www.capodc.com.