Food

Here’s What You’ll Be Eating and Drinking at Mike Isabella’s Pepita

Cocktails served in pineapples, Mexican-style ribs, and plenty of tacos.
Mike Isabella goes casual in Ballston with Pepita, a Mexican cantina. Photography by Andrew Propp.

Sipping a margarita out of a skull-shaped glass sounds intense, but the vibe is anything but at chef Mike Isabella’s Ballston restaurant, Pepita. The casual cantina draws from coastal Mexico with a bounty of tequilas and mezcals, whole grilled fish served with homemade tortillas and salsas, and ample outdoor seating. The 32-seat space opens July 30, with the 44-seat patio to follow a few weeks after.

Barman Taha Ismail sources unusual drinking vessels, such as margarita skull “pitchers” and a copper pineapple for the Lady Marmalade.

Barkeep Taha Ismail sourced unusual drinking vessels for his creative cocktails. A list of 35-plus drinks includes sips like an ancho chili-spiked mango margarita, served out of a glass cranium “pitcher” for groups, and two-to-four person punches laded from charred oak barrels. The showstopper: the Lady Marmalade, made with kumquat preserves, cachaca, and ginger. That’s not to say you need buddies to drink; Isabella’s current favorite is the mezcal-based frozen watermelon margarita.

The colorful indoor cantina opens first, with a larger 44-seat patio to follow.

Pepita is as much a bar as it is a restaurant; guests aren’t required to order food to claim a table. Padding the stomach is still a good idea, especially when that involves fare like grilled avocado tacos, torta sandwiches stuffed with barbecued lamb and pickled chilies, or tuna ceviche. Sharing is encouraged—portions run tapas-size, except for family-style platters such as smoked short ribs served with homemade corn tortillas, salsas, and guacamole.

Diners can dig into family-style platters of smoked ribs, or snack on tapas-size dishes like these green chili chicken tacos.

Instead of tortilla chips, free table snacks come in the form of spiced pepitas (pumpkin seeds). Happy hour specials run all day, every day, and vary by hour. Guests might find food discounts earlier, and deals on Tecate or tequila shots later in the night. Can’t linger? The entire food menu is available for takeout.

Try Mike Isabella’s current favorite cocktail: a mezcal-spiked watermelon margarita.

Pepita. 4000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington (entrance on N. Quincy Street). Open July 30. Regular hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 to midnight; Friday 11:30 to 2 am; Saturday 11 to 2 am; Sunday 11 to midnight.

Punches for two-to-four drinkers are served in charred wooden barrels.

Cool off with a watermelon salad with mint and chili vinaigrette.

Dishes take inspiration from coastal Mexico, like this tuna ceviche.

The bar stocks a strong collection of tequilas and mescals, available in one and two-ounce pours.

Adding to the beach-y feel: plenty of color and light weight melamine plate ware.

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Anna Spiegel
Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.