What began as a dream to open a traditional Mexican restaurant soon turned into an obsession for Chad Sparrow. A search for the perfect taco has led the co-founder of Common Plate Hospitality on trips across the United States and Mexico.
On Monday, January 21, Sparrow’s dream will be realized with the opening of Urbano 116 at 116 King Street in Old Town Alexandria. To serve the type of food he wanted there, Sparrow found he had to convince a chef based in Mexico City to join him.
A light bulb went on for Sparrow when he landed at the table of chef Alam Méndez Florián at his Oaxacan restaurant, Pasillo de Humo, in the Condesa neighborhood of the Mexican capital. Sparrow had finally found the flawless corn tortilla.
“I had this aha moment,” says Sparrow, whose Alexandria-based restaurant group runs Mason Social, Augie’s Mussel House, and the recently opened Catch on the Ave. “Alam’s tortillas really opened my eyes to what a taco should be, and I immediately said, ‘I want to bring this to D.C.’”
Easier said than done.
Méndez Florián was hesitant to go into business in a city he had never visited. He was also only a year-and-a-half into Pasillo de Humo, which was gaining critical acclaim. And the concept seemed to stray from his experiences at Michelin-starred kitchens, including one at Noma Mexico in Tulum.
Méndez Florián’s family ties were another consideration. His mother, Celía Florian, is known as la madre de mole, the mother of mole. Since Méndez Florián could walk, he recalls being at his parents’ restaurant in Oaxaca.
“All my life has been in restaurants,” he says. “As a kid, if I ever wanted to find my mom, I knew to look for her in the kitchen.”
So, how did Méndez Florián end up 2,400 miles away in Old Town?
It took a lot of convincing on the part of Sparrow, who flew him here to test recipes and show off the space. There was also the need to hire immigration lawyers and several months of waiting for Méndez Florián’s U.S. work visa. But Méndez Florián had left home before — he’s worked in kitchens in Chile, Guatemala, and Denmark.
“Once I came here and saw how this [restaurant] worked, I thought maybe it was possible to go between the two countries,” Méndez Florián says. He’s continuing to fly back-and-forth between his two restaurants, but for now, most of his time will be spent living in D.C.
Inside Urbano 116, diners might feel as if they’ve left King Street’s Main Street-Americana vibe for the sights, sounds, and smells of Mexico City. There’s a mural of a luchador painted on the restaurant’s brick wall (made by local Latino artist David Amoroso). The tortillas are pressed in-house from Oaxacan corn that’s shipped almost weekly.
The menu heavily features tacos, including vegetarian and fish varieties. Meat options feature a slow-cooked lamb barbacoa topped with morita chile salsa — similar to a chipotle — and avocado sauce.
There are also several moles inspired by Méndez Florián’s mother, seafood ceviches, and even a walk-up window serving piping hot churros. Sparrow says there are plans to also sell tacos to-go.
In the midst of a United States government shutdown predicated on funding a U.S.-Mexico border wall, Méndez Florián remains optimistic that his cooking will connect the two countries closer together.
“We have a lot of tradition, culture, and knowledge to share, and bringing this food, right now, is important,” he says. “To me, it’s a way to show my love for my culture and a way to help build relationships.”
Urbano 116 opens Monday for lunch and dinner. It will soon offer weekend brunch service as well.
Urbano 116 Food Menu by on Scribd