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Espita Mezcaleria offers authentic yet non-traditional Mexican fare

Gay-friendly staff, abundant mezcal brands among D.C. restaurant’s strong points

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Espita Mezcaleria, gay news, Washington Blade

The 1979 cocktail at Espita Mezcaleria. (Photo by Evan Caplan)

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. 

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Dining

Annie’s celebrates 75th anniversary

Local institution a place of community and acceptance for LGBTQ patrons

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The local community celebrated Annie’s last weekend. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

George Katinas, a child of immigrants, opened Paramount Steakhouse in 1948 on the corner of 17th and Church streets, N.W. (where JR.’s is currently located). Three-quarters of a century later, the restaurant has changed its name and location, received accolades from the city and James Beard, and was deservedly feted last weekend. His son Paul now owns the restaurant, and runs Annie’s today with his daughter Georgia Katinas.

George ran the restaurant with his sisters, but it was a singular sister Annie who coaxed the restaurant into its status as a place of community and acceptance for the growing LGBTQ population in Dupont Circle. Katinas renamed the restaurant for her. When there were desperately few areas of safety, Annie’s stood out, and does still today.

Last Saturday, Annie’s pulled out all the stops for an all-day party under a brilliantly sunny sky. The clouds parted for the celebration, bringing together government officials, longtime customers, and families with new fans. A rainbow balloon arch perched across the 17th Street sidewalk.

Drag artists Kimberly Di’Nitta, Victoria Di’Nitta, Jayzeer Shantey, Genocide Abrasax and Candi H. Fuentes performed, Miss Gay Arlington greeted fans, and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington sang several renditions a capela for the crowd – including “Happy Birthday” over an enormous cake with sparkler candles (Annie’s has been a longtime supporter of the Gay Men’s Chorus).

“Taking a moment to sing happy birthday with Potomac Fever Group of Gay Men’s Chorus, this moment was so emotional,” said Georgia.

Anne’s set up a swag tent, selling collectible pint glasses featuring caricatures of the Annie’s family, like George and Annie herself. There was also a raffle, carnival snacks, and sidewalk games like a pie walk and martini race.

Vincent Slatt of Rainbow History Project was there to take it all in. Armed with a microphone, he interviewed partygoers to talk about why Annie’s was meaningful to them on the occasion of the anniversary.

In 2019, the James Beard Foundation announced that Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse, won the America’s Classic award for the Mid-Atlantic region (Ben’s Chili Bowl has also won this award). These awards are given “to locally owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community,” according to the James Beard website.

“Annie’s became home, and was there when there weren’t too many other opportunities or places to go,” says owner Paul Katinas (George’s son) in a previous interview. Annie’s also developed a strong relationship with the Washington Blade after the newspaper was founded in 1969.

After the outdoor festivities closed at 6 p.m., the party moved inside to Annie’s upper level for an appropriately festive afterparty.

Georgia notes that the anniversary “gave us a moment to reflect and think about how much has changed in 75 years, yet how much we’ve kept Annie’s the same. It’s a reason to celebrate and reflect. We’re so grateful for the support of our regulars.”

As for the next 25 years? Georgia says that the restaurant industry will be affected by the new tipped-wage law, but is adamant that Annie’s will remain.

“We will preserve what we have, honor our past, while making new memories.”

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Dining

Delectable debuts on the D.C. dining scene

Jose Andres triumphs, Mi Vida expands, and more

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The Square (1850 K St.) is D.C.’s newest food market.

This year is already turning out to be a dynamic one for dining and nightlife. The effects of the pandemic, inflation, and the supply chain are still being felt, but there is a sense of optimism with a host of new openings for the first half of the year. And this season, of course, is often defined by cherry blossoms. Peak bloom is predicted for March 22-25, and festival activities begin on March 18. Enjoy all the pink, and read on for some dining highlights for the first few months of 2023.

Bazaar

Jose Andres triumphantly returned to the Old Post Office building in a coup for the celebrity restaurateur. The building, which is now a Waldorf Astoria hotel, most recently housed a hotel run by the organization of a disgraced former president. Andres had his eyes on the space for two decades and was set to open a restaurant there, but refused because of the new owner. Bazaar, which opened in February, serves sophisticated Spanish cuisine. It has locations in Los Angeles and Miami, plating specialty dishes like Iberico ham with caviar.

Uncaged Mimosas

It’s all flowers and bubbles at Uncaged Mimosas in Truxton Circle, which opened in February. Here, brunch is served every day of the week. Chef Damian Brown pours 20-plus kinds of mimosas, with flights available, plus frozen daiquiris. Neon signs, fake flowers and vines, and lots of color gives it a permanent party vibe. Brunch dishes include chicken and waffles, salmon and grits, and red velvet pancakes.

Ambar

Ambar, one of the only all-you-can-eat dinner restaurants in the region, is opening its second spot in D.C. proper and third in the area. The new two-story restaurant, which opened March 6, sits in Shaw across from Dacha. Owner Ivan Iricanin brings in dishes from across the Balkans, like hearty country slow-cooked dishes from the interior, to seafood specialties from the Mediterranean. There are more than 60 bottles of wine from the Balkans, plus fruit-infused rakia, the popular Balkan spirit. Ambar offers unlimited prix-fixe brunch, lunch, and dinner menus, with optional drink pairings at brunch and dinner.

Owl Room

The U Street Corridor welcomes this new nightlife destination in the former Marvin space on March 10. Run by Marvin owner Eric Hilton and others, Owl Room has transformed the spot into more of a music and concert venue, with a dance floor and stage that will feature live music and DJ sets. The upstairs has a more relaxed patio for cocktails.

Mi Vida

Gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design continues to expand its Mexican hit restaurant, Mi Vida, with a new outpost set to open in April in Penn Quarter. This will be the largest Mi Vida to date, boasting a huge 10,000-square-foot space. Design flourishes include the iconic tree of life that has been showcased at all three locations, as well as a new custom rope art installation by Mexican artisans.

Alfresco

On the southern end of Adams Morgan, Alfresco is a new “American tap and grill” restaurant from the owners of Lauriol Plaza, located just down 18th Street. The 300-plus seat restaurant is set to open in April. Its menu is a distinct departure from Lauriol’s Mexican food; this one serves sandwiches, pizza, pasta, salads, and steaks. True to its name, there is a central courtyard with a retractable pergola roof, as well as two other outdoor patio seating spaces.

Van Leeuwen

New York import Van Leeuwen Ice Cream and its super premium brand of dessert is opening three shops in the next few months: Union Market (418 Morse St. NE), Adams Morgan (2421 18th St. NW), and Georgetown (3245 Prospect St. NW). Founded in 2008 as a New York City ice cream truck, Van Leeuwen is known for both traditional and vegan ice creams. Unique flavors include mac ’n cheese and honeycomb. These are its first shops in D.C., though there are more than 20 across the country.

The Square

The Square (1850 K St.) will be D.C.’s newest food market, opening later this year. The Square is slated to open in 2023 within International Square, and will feature a collection of more than 15 artisanal food vendors, a full-service restaurant and bar, an expansive bar in the central atrium, and outdoor dining seating, plus retail. Richie Brandenburg and Rubén García co-founded The Square, both well-established chefs, bring globally inspired food to the expansive food hall.

Bunker

While not falling into the food sphere, the opening of Bunker has upended nightlife destinations for the LGBTQ community in D.C. Kinetic Productions owners Zach Renovatés and Jesus Quispe debuted the subterranean spot in late February, bringing in local and national DJs, dancers, drag queens, and entertainment. The bar/club is open Thursday-Sunday, playing different music genres each night.

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Dining

D.C. restaurants offer something for everyone this Valentine’s Day

From romantic prix-fixe options to a ‘single AF mixer’

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Try the 40-layer lasagne at L’Ardente. (Photo by Mike Fuentes Photography)

Whatever Valentine’s Day means to you, there are plenty of places around D.C. for an excellent prix-fixe dinner or raging party with pals/gals/side pieces. Below are just a few options for what’s available:

Couple Options

Hot new French restaurant L’Ardente and its infamous 40-layer lasagne is offering an extended Valentine’s Day dinner, from Friday, Feb. 10, through Tuesday, Feb. 14. Couples can choose from the regular menu or a five-course tasting menu ($250 for two), which includes passion fruit caviar martinis.

Sababa Cleveland Park will serve a four-course, prix-fixe menu for two on Feb. 14. The menu ($120 for two) includes beet hummus, heart of palm salad, and a date tahini tart (and lots of romance-themed puns).

Cafe Riggs, in the Riggs Hotel, is serving not just a dessert special, but also a hotel package. Hotel guests can enjoy a Valentine’s Brunch in Bed enhancement with the option to a build-your-own mimosa flight or coffee while enjoying a Petit Déjeuner (French continental breakfast) in your room. Reservations are available through OpenTable

Lyle’s, in the Lyle Hotel, will offer a prix-fixe dinner menu at $85 per person that will be available the weekend before and after Valentine’s Day as well as on the holiday. Reservations are available through OpenTable.

Ellington Park Bistro, in the St. Gregory Hotel, is offering a Valentine’s Day menu as well as the regular a la carte menu. The menu will highlight sweet flavors, and includes dishes such as Butternut Squash Soup, Sweet Shrimp Wontons, and Raspberry and White Chocolate. Reservations available through OpenTable.

The Fairmont Georgetown is offering a decadent Valentine’s Afternoon Tea on Feb. 11, 12, and 14 inside overlooking the courtyard, with petit fours, scones, and savory sandwiches like an oak-smoked cheddar and spiced pear chutney. Tea is served from 1-4 p.m. ($75 per person), with the option to add a glass of G.H. Mumm Champagne.

Nicoletta Italian Kitchen will host a Valentine’s Day Pizza Class on Feb. 11, teaching everyone to make their own heart-shaped pie, while enjoying arancini and wine. And for those looking for something a little less hands-on, Nicoletta will offer a special Valentine’s Day menu on Feb. 14, complete with heart-shaped pizzas (made by the chef this time), as well as three special dishes – a clam appetizer, calzone, and lobster raviolo.

Waldorf Astoria Washington DC in the storied and renamed Old Post Office has an old-school option to “pen letters of love over dinner to share with a special someone.” Valentine’s Day guests will all receive a custom piece of stationary at their time of seating in addition to a menu of inventive dishes with a selection of elevated ingredients. Reservations can be made on SevenRooms.

Immigrant Food+ is serving a three-course menu for two, with options for vegetarian and pescatarian guests. There’s also a featured wine list from all female growers/winemakers including a special Galentine’s Day Flight of a Brut, white, and red.

Non-Couple Options

Brookland’s Finest Bar & Kitchen will offer a special “Salty & Bitter” bar menu over Valentine’s Day weekend, complete with salty snacks and bitter beverages. Snacks include chicken fingers and pretzel bites with truffle oil; drinks include espresso martinis and black Manhattans.

El Techo is throwing a Broken Hearts Club this Valentine’s Day (2/14). The tropical oasis rooftop is “helping single guests nurse their wounds” with a free shot of tequila for everyone who goes by on Feb. 14. It’s also offering a Taco Tuesday deal, which features three tacos and choice of a margarita or beer for $22.

Washingtonians that find themselves ready to mingle this year can head to Fight Club’s Anti-Commitment Ball on Saturday, Feb. 11. The party, from 8 p.m.-1 a.m., will feature DJ Daniel Biltmore spinning live tunes, food/drink specials, and Jell-O shots. Tickets not required. Food and drink items available a la carte.

The National Union Building at 918 F St. is bringing out its “certified fun sommelier” for a wine tasting event. Two sessions (Feb. 12 and Feb 13, both 6:30 p.m.) offer six wines, from fizzy to deep, dark red. Bottles will be available for purchase to take home. Tickets are $35-$45 through Eventbrite.

NoMa’s WunderGarten is hosting a “Nice Try Cupid Anti-Valentine’s Day Single AF Mixer” on Feb. 14, 7-11 p.m. Tickets are free but reservations recommended via Eventbrite.

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