Lime Shortage or Not, Mike Isabella to Open Mexican Cantina, Pepita, in Arlington

A new Virginia restaurant for ‘Top Chef”s Mike Isabella.

Photo Credit: Greg Powers

By Stefanie Gans

“When I go to a Mexican restaurant, I want a taco, salsa and a margarita,” says Mike Isabella. What the “Top Chef” star wants, he creates. Pepita, to open early next year, will replicate the vibes of a Mexican coastal cantina. The small space, 1,200 square feet in Ballston‘s Liberty Center, is in the same residential complex where Isabella’s Kapnos Taverna will be opening this fall. His first foray into Virginia will happen this summer with Graffiato, a modern American-Italian concept with a new location in Richmond—duplicating an already established downtown D.C. location.

The concise menu will focus on a dozen or so snacks and smaller plates—soups, salads, ceviches, tortas, tacos—and caja china-roasted suckling pig.

Pepita, named for the pumpkin seed, will mimic the color of squash blossoms with accents of marigolds, yellows and greens and lots of wood for what Isabella dubs a “Mexican watering hole” feel. There will be an emphasis on a variety of margaritas with a fresh fruit juice bar (passion fruit, mango, pineapple, prickly pear) and frozen drink machines pouring coffee slushies mixed with tequila.

Isabella’s Mexican food credentials come from working in the Philadelphia kitchen of Jose Garces in Stephen Starr‘s El Vez, as well as opening Georgetown’s Bandolero as a consulting chef. This time, says Isabella, “I wanted to do a Mexican concept that was mine.”

As for the current lime shortage, the Isabella team hopes it isn’t an issue by early 2015, and won’t start the actual sourcing until three months from opening. As for now, says Isabella, “It’s fun to create, to come up with different flavor profiles, and different techniques and evolve and grow. I travel a lot, I dine out. And for me that’s the fun part. I don’t want to be the guy who does one restaurant and makes a chain out of it.”