If you can’t escape to coastal Mexico (or anywhere) this spring, the latest restaurant from the team behind Espita Mezcaleria and Ghostburger may be the closest thing. The two-in-one Mexican restaurant, Las Gemelas—which means “twin girls” in Spanish—channels a beach-y vibe with a dual set of all-day concepts: a “fast-fancy” taqueria with a walk-up takeout window, and a full-service seafood spot that’s good for daily brunch or evening margaritas. The taqueria will open on March 15 at La Cosecha, the Latin food hall near Union Market, followed a week later by the sit-down restaurant.
When Covid hit almost a year ago, Espita owner Josh Phillips and wife/business partner Kelly Phillips were in the Mexican beach village of Troncones, researching food and drink for the restaurant. And unlike a lot of businesses born in the pandemic, Las Gemelas isn’t a big departure from what they originally envisioned.
“We wanted the kind of place we’d go when we’re on vacation or a date night: breakfast tacos in the morning, ceviche and cocktails. Beach-y eatș—very light, very clean,” says Kelly Phillips.
For this new venture, the couple brought on two business partners who’ve worked at Espita since the Oaxacan restaurant opened in Shaw five years go. Tortillera Yesenia Neri-Diaz, a Guerrero native, will continue to lead an extensive tortilla program. The group imports Oaxcan corn that’s ground and nixtamalized on premise for ultra-flavorful, fresh tortillas. For the taqueria’s morning-to-night volume, Neri-Diaz will have the help of a Lenin Tortilladora machine that can churn out 2,100 fluffy masa tortillas an hour. Rogelio Martinez, who worked as a butcher in Mexico City before joining Espita, is behind meat dishes such as pork-and-pineapple al pastor, lamb shoulder barbacoa, adobo chicken, braised beef tongue-and-cheek with salsa verde, and homemade green chorizo.
The menu for Taqueria Las Gemelas starts daily at 7:30 AM for early risers with $2 pours of local Counter Culture coffee and three styles of egg breakfast tacos, including crispy potato and cheese or carnitas and pickled jalapeño. There are also homemade sweets and a chia-yogurt bowl. Josh Phillips, who lives in the NoMa neighborhood, says there isn’t “a huge breakfast scene during the week,” but he’s seen an uptick in morning crowds as more people work from home in the burgeoning residential neighborhood.
In addition to tacos, an all-day menu boasts quesadillas, tlayudas—like a Mexican masa pizza piled with beans, cheese, pickled onions, and meats—and sides such as homemade chips and salsas or tomato rice. Though there’s a patio for lingering, drinks here are made for grab-and-go such as mezcal margaritas on tap, canned beer and wine, or “chagronis,” a riff on a Negroni slushy with tequila and chamoy, a pickled fruit condiment. Frozen fans can also get their fix with homemade soft-serve—best eaten as a swirl of dulce de leche and milk chocolate topped with a sweet-salty combination of mole negro and crunchy tortilla bits.
The taqueria will also have a market built-in to the shop with items like the homemade tortillas—taco or larger quesadilla size—three styles of moles, salsas, and more. Tortillas will come with a QR code that links to a video starring Neri-Diaz demonstrating how to prepare the masa rounds at home.
Non-identical twin sister Las Gemelas Cocina Mexicana is located a few steps away in La Cosecha, and takes over a central space near the market entrance with a U-shaped bar, indoor tables, and an open window onto a large patio (capacity will depend on current Covid restrictions). Brunch runs daily from 9 AM to noon with the kind of fare you might crave before hitting the beach: masa waffles with fruit and chipotle butter, chilaquiles, and several fancy toasts (the current group favorite: carrot-turmeric hummus with pickled carrots and smoky cashews). In addition to fresh juices, look for a specialty draft coffee system that dispenses both local hot and cold nitro brews. Being an Espita production, the bar will pour plenty of mezcal cocktails in addition to Mexican and South American wines to match with seafood dishes such as salmon crudo tostadas, tuna aguachile, or mussels steamed in chipotle broth.
Similar to Espita, which transitioned to a no-contact QR code ordering system early in the pandemic, customers at Las Gemelas can pull up menus, order, and pay for items by scanning a GoTab code with their mobile devices. Servers will still greet customers and interact with tables who have questions about the food and drinks, especially at Cocina Mexicana.
“The goal is to take away the transactional nature of dining out and focus on hospitality,” says Josh Phillips. “It’s gotten to a point where the server’s role is no longer about the mechanics of taking orders or payment.”
Las Gemelas won’t be the only new restaurant from the Espita crew. Josh Phillips says he’s currently scouting multiple brick-and-mortar locations for Ghostburger, their popular burger and cheesesteak ghost kitchen that opened at Espita in August. The original isn’t an actual apparition—“it isn’t going away, it’s become a part of who we are,” says Phillips.
Las Gemelas. 1280 Fourth St., NE; 202-866-0550.