“We had to suffer through so many glorious meals and sunsets,” Josh Phillips says.
Since 2016, the team has been bringing mezcal and Oaxacan dishes to the Shaw-based restaurant and bar. Now, the burgeoning hospitality group is opening two restaurants in the Union Market District: Taqueria Las Gemelas and Las Gemelas Cocina Mexicana. For years, the group has been traveling to Oaxaca for research and development. Now, they want to share what they had in Mexico when they weren’t working.
The two spots bookend La Cosecha, the Latin market home to spots like La Casita Pupuseria, Latin wine shop Grand Cata and rotating art exhibitions. The name “las gemelas” means “the twins,” and while they’re nonidentical, both offer a line to cuisines hailing from outside of D.C. Taqueria offers all-day tacos ($3.50) and agua frescas ($4) reminiscent of a Mexico City street corner as designed by Luis Barragan. Meanwhile, Cocina offers fresh dishes evocative of Mexican seaside towns like aguachile ($16) served with raw tuna, beets, fresno chiles and lime, or the pitaya (dragonfruit) mojito ($11).
“We don’t want to necessarily be a Mexican bar in D.C.,” says Las Gemelas Beverage Director James Simpson. “We want you to be transported and feel like you’re walking into a bar in Mexico.”
For five years, Simpson has been helping Espita become one of D.C.’s best mezcal bars.
“Everything surrounding mezcal – the culture, the families behind each bottle we choose – that’s where my head’s been at.”
At Las Gemelas, Simpson is looking beyond Oaxaca. The bar now features spirits like charanda, a Mexican agricole (rum distilled from sugarcane juice as opposed to molasses) that’s used in the pitaya mojito. Made in heirloom stills from Michoacán sugarcane varieties, it’s almost savory.
“A grassy note, a lot of brightness and a little salinity,” Simpson says of the drink. “It’s familiar, but more off of your standard palate.”
Drinks will feature other non-agave spirits, but more like they’re used in Mexico. Hence, again, the pitaya.
“If you’re in a bar in Mexico,” Phillips says, “as opposed to a Mexican bar in America, they still use all the spirits you would find [here]. They just have a much different array of local produce.”
Pitaya, though often associated with Southeast Asia, originated in the Americas.
“The exciting journey,” Simpson says, “is to find those underrepresented parts of Mexican spirits culture. Adding brands that might have not even existed when we started, and certainly didn’t have any representation north of the border outside somebody carrying them home in their suitcase, [are] now proudly displayed as part of the collection.”
One gin in use is agave-based, but distilled with traditional and local botanicals representing the 32 states of Mexico. As the twin spots open early, they offer non-alcoholic agua frescas, too – another nod to those coastal towns.
“You’ll find families who make these traditional beverages [like] tepache de piña, tejuino and atole that are typically made with a lot of labor, grinding spices with a molcajete and steeping [them] in a clay pot,” Simpson says. “I want to bring that tradition to the bar.”
Recipes come from those shared by staff at meals over the years.
“Someone will make a beautiful agua fresca,” Simpson says, “just with the zest of 100 key limes. It takes them an hour but you have this beautiful, bright green, citrusy drink.”
“Food-wise,” Phillips adds, “we’ve always tried to stay fairly traditional as far as the preparations, but not necessarily the dishes people expect.”
At Espita, this means dishes like tlayuda, a Oaxacan street food served with enough carnitas to be a late-night joy. At Gemelas, they will offer lighter coastal fare. Along with the aguachile, other dishes include mejillones al chipotle, or mussels, and consomé de borrego, a traditional birria stew.
Whether you plan to visit the Taqueria or Cocina, don’t miss Las Gemelas.
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