Let’s think economically. Instead of spending all that money flying down to Mexico City for an authentic culinary experience, consider dropping about $100 on date night at Urbano 116 on King St. in Old Town. By the way, the former is exactly what owners Chad Sparrow and Larry Walston did last year – went to Mexico City to do some research for a Latin American concept, and while there became completely intoxicated by the Oaxacan flavors of chef Alam Méndez. In fact, it was at Méndez’ restaurant, Pasillo de Humo, that their mouths closed on fresh tortillas and their eyes opened to the idea of bringing this maestro of a Mexican chef back home with them.
“I said to Chad, ‘This is the best tortilla I’ve ever had in my life,’” Walston said. “So, we met Alam and it clicked. See, Chad and I went to Mexico City for a week. Culture, people, atmosphere, vibes. You’re going to want to come to Urbano for a true authentic Mexican restaurant, as opposed to a Tex-Mex restaurant like Los Tios or El Guapos – burritos, beans and rice and call it a day. We do the moles, the handmade chips with ceviches, the handmade tortillas. Real upscale Mexican food.”
The initial idea was that Méndez would come up for just for a week to train Urbano 116’s staff, but it became apparent that the magic in the kitchen would be gone as soon as he walked out the door. So, Walston, Sparrow and his brother Justin Sparrow made him an offer to become a partner in the company and move to Old Town. In other words, when you step into Urbano 116, it feels just like you walked into a cool restaurant in Mexico City.
“I like Old Town because it’s so calm, and Oaxaca is a small city, and I like small cities,” the 29-year-old Méndez told The Zebra. “When I’m cooking I’m trying to share my traditions. Like our moles. My mom taught me how to do it, and all the sauces themselves are what I used to eat as a kid.”
Méndez, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of México, also competed as a chef in the Mexican National Junior Olympic Team, won cooking competitions and worked as the sous chef at the Hotel Santa Cruz Plaza in Chile and was the main chef at Don Porfirio restaurant in Guatemala. And don’t worry about the spices, he said, because his menu is more flavorful than hot.
The 4,000 square foot, 163-seat restaurant and bar opened on Jan. 21, and is like nothing else in Alexandria. Hydraulic garage-style windows connect the scene to King Street, and inside the lighting is dark and cool paintings of masked Mexican wrestlers adorn the walls, along with a neon sign that glows the word, “Churros.” Menu-wise, you won’t regret ordering the Chicken Milanesa Tacos, which have just the perfect mix of crunchiness to fried chicken strips, mild salsa, refried black beans and fresh flour tortillas. And if you can’t decide on a drink, consider washing it all down with the Urbano Punch, which is a mix of Smithworths vodka, blueberry jalapeño agave syrup and grapefruit.
Meet The Owners – Common Plate Hospitality
“I think now we have a presence in Alexandria,” Walston said. “I think our next venture might be something across the river, in D.C.”
Urbano is owned by Walston and the Alexandria-native Sparrow brothers. Their company, Common Plate Hospitality, also owns Mason Social, Catch On The Avenue in Del Ray and Augie’s Mussel House On The Patio. It’s been a very busy quarter for the trio, since their company Common Plate Hospitality launched Catch On The Avenue in December and Urbano 116 last month. The group also own Advanced Construction Group, LLC, which handles real estate and building of single family homes in the area.
“I think that we’ve come to terms with a level of calculated risk that that we’re comfortable with,” said Justin Sparrow. “We learned an awful lot in those first few years at Mason Social [which opened in 2015], and we’ve taken those lessons learned and applied them across the board on our other restaurants. We’ve learned from a costing standpoint, a quality standpoint, a guest experience standpoint, from listening to guests and being humble and smart enough to change when you see that something’s not working. People want an experience when they dine. They aren’t just going out to get a bite to eat, and that experience starts from the food, the cocktail program, the decor, the vibrancy of the place.”
Common Plate Hospitality opened Augie’s for a few months last summer as a Belgian-themed pop-up as it went through a permit approval process for interior demolitions. The two-story 230-seat restaurant was formerly home to French restaurant Le Gaulois for two decades, and is being completely gutted. Just like Urbano 116, the space is being designed by Alexandria architecture firm HGA, which will connect the first floor with the second floor and the outdoor patio.
“So I think the challenge with that space is connectivity,” Sparrow said of the Augie’s interior. “Nothing really flowed together, so we are doing there is a similar window system that we have here onto the patio, an indoor-outdoor bar, and we’re a cutting some of the flooring out, so you’ll be able to have connection with the second floor looking down over the bar on the first floor. So, it should be a cool, fun spot.”
Urbano 116, located at 116 King St., is open 11 a.m. to midnight on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m. to midnight on Sunday.