Here’s a nice perk of working at Mexican restaurant and mezcal bar Espita Mezcaleria: you might get a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. Since opening last March in Shaw, the crew at Espita has taken two groups south of border as a reward — arranging a bonding trip and an educational tour to check out mezcalerias and distilleries firsthand.
Maybe it’s no coincidence then that every single bartender hired from day one is still working at the restaurant, something that Espita’s operating partner Josh Phillips calls “incredibly rare.” Phillps’ mezcal obsession is obvious — his Twitter handle is @mezcalnerd — but his passion for the spirit must also be infectious. “If you let them, they'll give you an education of mezcal almost immediately, almost instinctively,” he says of the Espita staff.
They’re not the only converts: Phillips says he’s been blown away by D.C.’s reception to the idea of a classic Oaxacan mezcaleria. And although some diners do walk in the door expecting TexMex, others do flow in specifically seeking Espita’s labor-intensive moles, and tortillas made every day with heirloom corn shipped in from southern Mexico.
Espita general manager and Master Mezcalier (he’s certified) Phillips, executive chef Alexis Samayoa, and assistant general manager AC Karchem sat down to explain how much has changed in the restaurant’s first year. (Beverage director Megan Barnes was busy serving customers when Eater stopped by).
Read on for the Espita team’s walk down memory lane, along with updates about cool new things diners should expect in the near future — including a house mezcal and big changes on the patio.
What has been the biggest surprise since you opened that you didn't expect?
Josh Phillips: For me, I think it was that people actually know a lot about mezcal, and really enjoy it. I figured we would be a mezcaleria in name only, and we would be passionate about it, and everyone would just come in and get cocktails and tacos.
On the beverage side, like I was looking at our numbers this morning, and the amount of neat mezcal we sell in a week is incredible.
So people already knew?
JP: Yeah. I remember maybe a month or so before we opened, I was doing an event, and everyone was telling me about their trips to Oaxaca. I was pleasantly shocked.
There's definitely the customers who are looking for other types of Mexican food, but holding our flag up there as a Southern Mexican restaurant, there's a shocking number of educated customers. It was a wonderful surprise. It made life a lot easier.
Have the flights been really popular?
JP: Yeah, crushingly. You just walk in the dining room and there are so many little cups of mezcal.
AC Karchem: I'm still shocked that we have carafes on the menu still. I thought we would've sold like one in our first month and Josh said, "Oh, it's worth a shot."
Have customers embraced worm salt?
JP: I like to tell people what it is before they eat it. And you kind of give them a death look like, "Come on. You're going to try it, right?" And they all do, and they all like it.
That wasn't too hard to sell. I think putting it on the rim of the margarita, too, that made it kind of acceptable. Because people are going to order the Mayahuel [a signature margarita made with mezcal] without even looking at it. “What's the house margarita?” “The Mayahuel.” “Great, I'll have two.” And then they get it, they drink it, they love it, and they're like, "What was that spicy stuff?" And you're like, "Oh, that's worms."
There's been some new openings this year, do you feel like you're not the new kid on the block anymore?
Alexis Samayoa: That's okay, I prefer not being the new kid on the block. For the customers that come here and fall in love with this restaurant over the year, it's great to have them and see them come back every other day or whenever they can, every weekend. It's also great that news gets around, people from other states come here and compare out Mexican food to anybody else's, and it's like, “Oh it's so good, you guys are doing a great job, that's great!”
JP: I think the best thing that happened to our restaurant was everyone else opening. Which just makes this a destination area, which is cool. It also doesn't hurt that we really like our neighbors.
AS: We all hang out, we're all on good terms. Having about six restaurants in this block, everybody gets along. There's no "I hate you”-type attitude around here. Which is good ... everybody shares the spotlight.
AK: It's great and no one is doing exactly what someone else is doing.
JP: It's been a really collaborative neighborhood, too. We’ve had staff from the Columbia Room take over our bar, we've had Jeremiah [Langhorne] from The Dabney come over and make the tacos, we've had Marjorie [Meek-Bradley from Smoked & Stacked] make a taco.
What is on tap for year two?
JP: Last time we went down we brokered a house mezcal which we'll be unveiling in a couple of weeks. So we got a slice of a really small batch, made in Santiago Matatlán [a town in Oaxaca]. So a normal copper still batch would be around 900 liters, so we've asked them to set aside a portion for us in the U.S. It’s really delicious, and because we've contracted directly it's going to be pretty affordable, too.
AK: The easy part to opening up a restaurant was opening the restaurant. The hard part is maintaining it. So year two is maintaining it, maintaining all the good stuff that's coming that we've built.
JP: I think we've finally gotten comfortable with the space. The challenge for the bar upfront was always figuring out how to do a really advanced cocktail program with a restaurant this size, with very limited space to prepare. They've figured that out, they've got that down. So now, it's how can they flex their creative muscles, and they've come up with a really interesting bar concept, where they're going to go through the eras of southern Mexico. They're going to do a pre-Columbian menu, a Columbian menu, they're going to do a modern Mexican and a post-modern Mexican one.
We're in the process of filing to open the patio year-round. It's already heated, but we're going to get it enclosed. Hopefully by April, it should be open year-round.
Do you get a lot of comments about Espita’s art?
JP: Yeah, so the original concept with the art was my mom's an artist, so we always had art in the dining room. It always seemed weird to eat not in the presence of art. So we very much wanted to make this an art-focused restaurant. That's another thing: Everybody knows who Yescka is. I did not expect that. We always see on Instagram someone will tag Yescka in their picture, and they'll be like, “Brunch with Yescka and tacos, awesome.” I'm like, how do you know Yescka?
Everybody knows mezcal and Yescka.
AK: I think everyone's studied abroad in Mexico.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.