In response, Mendizábal says, “One thing I never do is yell. I was trying to run a restaurant against a nightclub, and I had to stand my ground.” He adds that he has also undergone a lot of growth in the last 10 years.
In February 2010, while he was the chef at Lima, Mendizábal opened a fast-casual burger joint called Rogue States on Connecticut Avenue just south of Dupont Circle. Steptoe & Johnson, a law firm next door, raised a stink over the odor the burger shop was allegedly creating in their offices and sued Mendizábal and the building’s landlord. Mendizábal characterizes the suit as a David and Goliath story, with David losing. “The law firm assembled an army against me,” he says. “The only expert they had was this guy from West Virginia who sniffed around and said, ‘Oh yeah, I smell something.’ Our expert couldn’t detect any particles. He did it for free because he was so upset at what they were doing to me.”
The judge ruled against Mendizábal, ordering grilling operations to cease until the situation was rectified. The restaurant reopened in June 2011 as Black & Orange (the original name was too similar to another business) after Mendizábal installed a costly new ventilation system. He opened a second location of Black & Orange on 14th Street in Logan Circle in February 2012. Soon after, he sold both restaurants.
In December 2013, Mendizábal opened Urban Butcher, which features house-aged beef and craft charcuterie. The focal point of the space is a glass-enclosed aging room where hams and sundry salamis dangle. “I got very good at fish at Pesce and I wanted to complete my education as a chef,” Mendizábal says of Urban Butcher. “Meat was a challenge, a personal curiosity. So the adventure of curing, butchering, roasting and brining, refining skills I had learned in my career, started.”
Although he now owns two critically acclaimed restaurants, Mendizábal has no airs about his profession. “Cooking is not a high art. We’re not painters, we’re not sculptors, we’re not writers. We don’t make movies. Food is an easy art. We make it complicated to feel better about ourselves. The cooking part, I can do it with one hand. I don’t need to use almost any of my brain to do this job. The whole chef thing is air and smoke.”
He alludes to institutional discrimination in the restaurant business. “If you’re not French or American, you cannot make French food. We are encapsulated. That’s why I did Urban Butcher [before El Sapo]. If I could make it doing something where I’m not encapsulated, then I don’t have to prove anything anymore.”
Mendizábal maintains that respect and love from his staff contribute to his freedom. Rene Navarro, who started as a dishwasher and is now the chef de cuisine for El Sapo and Urban Butcher, Blanca Sanchez, the pastry chef for both restaurants, and dishwasher Marcelino Gonzalez have all been with Mendizábal for 15 years. Edwin Fuentes, the general manager of Urban Butcher, has worked with Mendizábal for 16 years. “He has people working for him as long as I have, and that doesn’t happen by accident,” Fuentes says. “On a daily basis, I see how kind he is to the employees who work for him. If I say, ‘This person lost her mother a few days ago, let’s [get] this nice arrangement for her,’ he will very discreetly say, ‘Let’s do something extra nice for that person, and let me contribute financially.’ ”
At 9:30 on the evening I trail Mendizábal at El Sapo, he and D’Oliveira, wielding giant sparklers and a bottle of bubbly, pull a cook into the middle of the dining room and sing “Happy Birthday” to him. The whole restaurant joins in, and Mendizábal beams with pride. “People used to come thinking it was loud, now they come tapping their feet. They sing ‘Happy Birthday’ loud for the people next to them, and when they all sing it in unison, it means the world to me,” he says. “El Sapo has been more than 20 years in the making. I love my culture, and it was about damn time. I don’t want it quiet because my culture is not quiet. I’m Cuban to the bone.”
David Hagedorn is a writer from Washington, D.C., and the restaurant critic for Arlington Magazine and Bethesda Magazine. He is also the coauthor of several cookbooks, including Rasika: Flavors of India.