One of the biggest challenges for the staff at Espita, the popular high-end Mexican restaurant and mezcal bar in Shaw, is convincing customers to explore parts of the menu beyond the tacos wrapped in heirloom corn tortillas. For chefs Ben Tenner and Rob Aikens, it’s a good problem to have, but it can be frustrating to see dishes like a pork shank confit in a manchamanteles-style mole full of pineapple and banana go ignored. So for its expansion project inside all-Latin La Cosecha market in Northeast, the ownership group decided to open a pair of twin businesses that solve the dilemma with a divide-and-conquer approach.
Taqueria Las Gemelas, which opens for breakfast and lunch today (Monday, March 15), caters to street food fans with a variety of tacos, tlayudas, and corn tortilla quesadillas — an item Espita’s customers have frequently requested over the years, but never felt like a fit, co-owner Josh Phillips says. Las Gemelas Cocina Mexicana, a cocktail bar serving toasts, salads, and seafood-centric dishes that bring to mind resort towns on the southern side of Mexico’s Pacific coast, will open at least a week later.
“Saying ‘a Mexican restaurant’ means different things to different people,” Phillips says. “Having both of them side by side allows us to very much differentiate that.”
To help lead the new projects, Espita’s owners have added two of their most trusted cooks as partners. Yesenia Neri Díaz, the restaurant’s resident masa expert, has a new, 5-horsepower molina (mill) and a new tortilla-making machine to ramp up production of rounds made with Masienda’s blue bolita corn. Las Gemelas, which means “the twins,” is a tribute to her two daughters, who turn 3 this week. Neri Díaz has been making tortillas since she was a 7-year-old in Ahuacuotzingo, a small city in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The taqueria includes a market section where customers can buy 15- or 10-packs of tortillas, tlayudas, salsas, mole, chamoy (chile-fruit sauce), and chile salt.
“For me it means a lot [to be a partner],” Neri Díaz says in Spanish. “More than anything, it’s like my second home.”
Rogelio Martinez, who worked as a butcher in Mexico City before making his way to the District, is also a partner. He’s the type of guy who built his own trompo, the vertical spit responsible for roasting al pastor proteins, at home.
“When I come in [to work], he’s shoulder high with pork around him. He’s got the carnitas already cooked,” says, a chef and partner at Espita. “He’s there at 5 a.m. By the time I’m there he’s already on his fifth taco. The guy loves pork like nobody.”
Martinez, who goes by Roger in the kitchen, is adamant his pork al pastor is a cut above because his partners source high-quality dried guajillo peppers that retain a leathery flexibility. He also gets credit from his colleagues for improving their smoked and slow-roasted lamb barbacoa by steadily reducing the cooking temperature to mimic the underground pits where the dish is traditionally made. At Taqueria las Gemelas, people can buy it on $5.50 taco with charred tomatillo salsa and onion. Aikens is also excited to serve a braised beef lengua y cachete, or “tongue and cheek,” taco with crisp tomatillo, onion, and salsa verde.
Quesadillas come with four different options: a quesillo with a four-cheese blend, adobo chicken, mushrooms and kale, or chorizo and potatoes. For dessert, Taqueria las Gemelas serves churros, a crispy rice treat, and a salty-sweet ice cream dish that came straight from a favorite snack in the kitchen at Espita. Soft-serve (milk chocolate or dulce de leche) comes with crushed up tortilla chips and mole negro chocolate sauce.
At the bar, the taqueria offers three cocktails, including a margarita ($9), a mezcal margarita ($10), and a chamoy negroni ($11). Canned wines come from Modelo on draft costs $6, and there’s a $7 bottle of session IPA from the Colima brewery. Canned wines come from Santa Julia in Mendoza, Argentina.