Authentic, but not traditional. Inspired, but not conformist. Innovative and leaning in: this is Espita Mezcaleria (1250 9th St., N.W.), your unconventional Mexican restaurant.
Lauded with 2.5 stars by the Washington Post along with a recent review that critic Tom Sietsema would return “on his own dime 4 sure,” plus an invite to cook at the James Beard Foundation House, means that the restaurant is being sent even higher on the ever-crowded list of must-visit D.C. dining destinations.
Yet central to Espita’s approach is that the restaurant is concerned just as much about its people as it is about its food and mezcal, which is saying a great deal.
So who are they? Meet partner and assistant General Manager Ace Karchem, a fourth-generation Jewish Washingtonian and gay resident of the U Street Corridor (his grandparents owned a small corner store where Uproar now sits).
Fresh out of college during the great recession, Karchem’s first restaurant job was at Uncle Julio’s in Bethesda in 2009, a logical place for someone interested in the food industry and with Argentine roots.
Soon after, as a graduate student at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, he met future business partner and Espita Mezcaleria co-founder Josh Phillips. Fast forward and when Phillips reached out about Karchem joining the Espita team in 2015, Karchem knew he’d found his calling.
While Phillips has become a mezcal evangelist, stocking his bar with upwards of 100 small-batch options, and as new Executive Chef Robert Aikens is breaking the mold of what is seen as Mexican food (see: beet steak layered over requesón cheese, sprinkled with ancho-chile-spiced granola), Karchem relishes his front of house and office-manager roles.
Though he demurs in claiming he plays the “least sexy role in the restaurant,” it wouldn’t function without him. Karchem, the only native Spanish-speaking partner, acts as translator. He trains the servers, hosts and chefs, and ensures that Espita stays true to its mission of representing the cuisine of Oaxaca and its spirit of openness and creativity, including empowering its staff.
During the 2016 Pride season, Espita served a drink called the People of the Clouds, a light, charming mezcal cocktail made misty from stirred jicama, lemon and lavender, and topped with bright-pink jicama sticks. Proceeds from the cocktail were donated to the Trevor Project. Why? A server at the time was a volunteer for the organization, and Karchem decided to elevate that to have the restaurant support him and the organization. Espita also took part in Pride by serving El Buho brand-sponsored mezcal drinks at the VIDA Pool Club party.
Finally, the restaurant certainly understands its customer base, too. Given its location in Shaw, the clientele is quite diverse, including a number of gay customers. One continuing concern of his, however, is a perceived conservatism among the community in sampling new drinks: gay customers are often hesitant to leave the vodka-soda rut, even in this temple to mezcal. Mezcal is still a fairly clear spirit, he says. “I don’t mistake a vodka-soda for a cocktail,” he says with a smile, though noting he does order the drink at gay bars.
Indeed, owner and restaurateur Josh Phillips is one of few master mezcaliers in Washington, curating a deep and thoughtful list of mezcals to teach diners and tipplers that the spirit is much more than tequila’s smoky sibling. The restaurant has a close, intimate relationship with the producers of each mezcal it serves, which Phillips contends mirrors wine in how it reflects its terroir.
Phillips and wife Kelly focus on small-batch, family-owned producers that use sustainable harvesting practices and provide safe working conditions for their employees. In fact, bar director Megan Barnes has lead teams to Oaxaca to visit traditional distilleries for firsthand experiences.
This care extends to crafting cocktails, which change seasonally. This fall, look out for the heady cocktail enigmatically named 1979, made with deep and dark Mexican fernet, vermouth, and amaro de chile, all stirred into a mezcal distilled over lamb pechuga (yes, the mezcal is infused with flavors from a cut of lamb).
Espita’s tortillas are cut from a similar cloth. Each morning, staff arrive pre-dawn to greet freshly imported heirloom corn, imported direct from Oaxaca. They soak, boil and grind it into masa, which is then pressed and flavored into the tortillas seen on the plate. It is, perhaps, the definition of artisanal.
Executive Chef Aikens, who joined the team last year, spares nothing in his exquisite attention to detail. Espita, again, promotes itself as authentic and not traditional. Aikens’ dishes are elaborate and deadly serious. Each ingredient is thoughtful and then meticulously plated, down to the refreshing chepiche, an aromatic Mexican herb that graces a chunky smoked-walnut-and-beet hummus.
In this sense, both inside the kitchen and out, Karchem sees Espita as a leader of the restaurant industry. Espita celebrates the variety of mezcal as much as it does its rainbow of a staff. The flavor profiles of this spirit that they are proud to serve are diverse and prolific: it can be mild, robust, floral, woody, spicy, singing on the palate — much like the community Karchem represents.