If you take a brisk walk down 14th Street, you’ll find everything from family-owned pupuserias in north Columbia Heights, mainstream fare in Tivoli Square, time-honored haunts through the U Street Corridor, and dozens of trendy restaurants further south: the superlative Lupo Verde, Pearl Dive (my favorite first-date spot), The Pig, Estadio, and Jinya (the best tonkatsu ramen in the city in my humble opinion). But for as many enduring mainstays, there are new places popping up all the time, exploring new ideas and themes.
One such newcomer is maïz64, the product of famed Mexican chef Alam Méndez Florián. He’s a native of the state of Oaxaca, a region nestled on Mexico’s southern Pacific Coast and famous for dishes like fried grasshoppers (chapulines), seven varieties of mole, Oaxacan cheese, tasajo and tamales. Of course, like the rest of Mexico, corn (maiz) is a staple in Oaxaca, and as an homage to the 64 varieties of corn native to the country, the restaurant is named maïz64. Méndez won hard-earned accolades as a chef in Mexico City, and brought the tastes of his homeland to Thomas Circle Park late last year, occupying the former B Too space.
Prime time on a Thursday, I arrive for dinner and am immediately struck by the welcoming warmth of both hostess and interior design. Traditional Mexican visual elements blend coolly with sleek gold-frame accents and dark tiles that run the length of the bar; the kitchen is open and the stainless steel appliances serve as reflectors for the open flames of the cooking space. I’m seated in the corner of the bar, next to an enormous river of wood that forms a table for ten. The blonde-wood tables and chairs evoke a midcentury austerity that’s both clean and warm. Cesare Sanchez, the affable and cordial general manager, greets me as I’m seated and walks me through the menu. He’s kind, polite, and eager to describe just how delicious each dish is going to be.
Before I dive into dinner — the roast duck breast is calling my name — I need a drink or two. There’s an extensive bar downstairs, but I’m seated at the upper bar, which boasts a small and tight selection of spirits. Besides the usual Italian red bitters, gin, and vodka, they have a lot of Mexican spirits, including Nixta Licor de Elote, which I’ve been struggling to find. Craft distilling is on the rise south of the border, and maïz64 has a lot of intriguing options. But first, I’m here for the most famous Oaxacan beverage — mezcal.
Mezcal is a distilled agave spirit made from the heart of the maguey plant, called the piña.
A cousin of tequila, this beverage was once thought to drive out demons through its intoxicating effects. There’s a wide spectrum of mezcals, with dozens of flavors ranging from dry and smoky to funky and salty. Some even combine proteins such as chicken breast, lamb, or deer in the distillation process after roasting in traditional earthen ovens to add a gaminess to the spirit. The vast majority of mezcal produced in Mexico is made in Oaxaca, so it’s my expectation that maïz64 would have a solid selection.
I chose an overproof Espadin mezcal from Macurichos to sip. Poured in a snifter to enhance the aroma, this dram is mature and rounded, with notes of mashed banana pulp and a touch of funk from the clay. I take it neat, but to complement it, I’m offered my choice of orange or lemon. Personally, I prefer to pair it with “sal de gusano” (ground-up worms with pepper and salt), which they promptly brought without question. They also brought some house-made tamarind gummies and a few slices of spiced oranges — to clean my palate between samples of mezcal.
To complement the first dish I’m served a butter-smooth corn tamale with cheese and smoky salsa. I’m supplied, on-demand, with black-corn tortillas made to order directly in front of me. As I sip and enjoy, I order the duck breast: three strips of meat served with apple reduction alongside a chocolate mole. The duck is melt-in-your-mouth tender, cooked to perfection and delicately seasoned. It pairs beautifully with the slightly sweet and complex chile mole. I still have my tortillas, and some salsa, and was advised to tear them into pieces and build mini-tacos with my duck. I do so, mixing flavors and trying as many combinations as my plate can afford. I switched to a cool glass of Bodega Vinicola Monte Xanic’s sauvignon blanc — a longtime favorite wine of mine from the Valle de Guadalupe in Mexico’s Baja California region. Crisp and flinty, this wine is from the superb portfolio of Salveto Imports and is the perfect accompaniment to the symphony of flavors.
Dinner, as I discover, is not only delicious but an ongoing affair. I’m repeatedly asked to sample menu items and combine them with all the flavors on my plates, which number a half-dozen. After polishing off the duck-and-apple tacos, and practically licking the plate clean, I ordered their housemade coffee ice cream and tied it together with an earthy, complex take on a Manhattan, made with ancho chile liqueur, Nixta and Abasolo corn whiskey. Wood-smoked and served with a lemon rind, it’s one of a dozen house-created cocktails, all of which are depicted in a grid format on a menu reminiscent of a fortune-teller’s palm card.
I’m not going to cloak my words — just go here. Try it. You won’t be disappointed. General manager Cesare and bartender Roberto are wonderfully knowledgeable, kind and generous to a fault. The distinct textures and complex flavors you’ll experience throughout dinner will be a delight. The food quality is of the highest caliber, and most of the ingredients are chosen by the head chef and sourced directly from Mexico. And you’ll find the ambiance soothing and perfect for focusing on the culinary masterpieces that grace your plate. You’ll find the craft, spirit, expertise and authenticity absolutely worth a visit — or three.
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