By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Crossing the hot pink entryway into Urbano 116 feels more like slipping into a high-end cocktail bar off the streets of Mexico City than it does going out for a bite in Old Town.
Geometric tiles line the floor and bar. Sleek black barstools are offset by whitewashed, exposed brick walls. Masked luchadores glare out from brightly lit display cases. A neon pink sign has you longing for churros.
“What we wanted to create was the opposite of what Old Town is known for,” Chad Sparrow, a member of Common Plate Hospitality, the three-man restaurant group behind Urbano 116, said. “We wanted something where you walk in, and you don’t feel like you’re in Old Town. You feel like you’re in New York or Miami or D.C., just somewhere that has a more urban vibe, a more hip, trendy vibe.”
Years in the works, Urbano 116 has been one of the most anticipated restaurants not only in Alexandria, but the entire D.C. region. Since opening on Jan. 21, it’s been riding a steady buzz of nonstop patrons and margarita orders.
The 160-seat, authentic Mexican restaurant’s success thus far can be attributed to the fast-growing restaurant group that brought it to life.
Common Plate Hospitality is made up of brothers Chad and Justin Sparrow and Larry Walston. Native Alexandrians and longtime friends, the trio in 2010 formed a construction company, Advanced Construction Group, which they still manage in addition to their restaurants.
It was Chad Sparrow who led the group’s expansion into the food industry, and four years ago, they opened their first venture, Mason Social, on North Henry Street.
From the beginning, Chad Sparrow said, they had been interested in opening more than one restaurant. In the last year, that dream has taken off – they opened Catch on the Ave in Del Ray in December and are on track to open Augie’s Mussel House on upper King Street this summer – but early on, the group knew a Mexican restaurant would be its crowning jewel.
“We always wanted to do a Mexican restaurant,” Chad Sparrow said. “That was always kind of my passion. Growing up, I went to culinary school and trained in the southwestern cuisine, so that was always going to be something that we wanted to do.”
They had begun looking at restaurant spaces for their Mexican concept in 2016, and when they heard about an opening at 116 King St., they acted quickly.
“It was kind of a no brainer on the location,” Chad Sparrow said. “Even though there was a lot of work and a lot of stuff to do, it was like, okay, this location doesn’t come up very often, so we thought this was definitely the place we’d go all in. We were like, ‘This is definitely going to be our Mexican place, kind of our main, main location.’”
Before Urbano 116, the space had been occupied by a pop-up shop called 116 King and, before that, a home and gift store called Decorium. Because it had never been a restaurant, extensive renovations were necessary.
“We also had the luxury of owning a construction company here in the city and so we took that through ourselves and did all the buildout,” Justin Sparrow said.
The group faced some challenges as it went through Alexandria’s administrative processes, including getting permission for a carryout churro window.
“You can go across the [river] at the [D.C.] Wharf and do administrative approvals and just sort of roll into construction,” Justin Sparrow said, “Versus here, [where] you’re kind of subject to all the public approvals and all the hearings, opinions, and so that’s a big hurdle.”
Despite the challenges, they decided it was worth it for the restaurant group to have its flagship restaurant in its hometown.
“Our plans are to eventually expand into D.C.,” Chad Sparrow said. “But we’re from Alexandria. We’re born and raised here, so we always wanted to have the foundation in Alexandria. With Augie’s coming up as well, another big King Street spot, and we have Catch [on the Ave] in Del Ray, I think those four locations, we’ll have a strong blueprint and foundation.”
After moving past the permitting phases, the group began to fine-tune Urbano’s design. The partners said their ultimate goal was to provide an authentic Mexican dining experience. Part of that meant straying from the food and atmosphere of a typical American Tex-Mex restaurant.
Design-wise, Chad Sparrow said they chose the Luchador theme because it was different from the Día del los Muertos design that most Mexican restaurants have. They hired a Mexican artist, David Amoroso, to paint Urbano’s walls with the statement Luchador masks that mark each of the restaurant’s booths, as well as the mural-sized Mexican fighter that dominates the back dining room.
“It’s something we’re trying to do across all of our concepts: give something from a design side that’s just a little bit different that people feel is fun and new and adds some vibrancy,” Justin Sparrow said. “We’re trying to bring some flair.”
Regarding food, Chad Sparrow said their menu challenges customers to view Mexican food differently.
“There’s just a preconceived notion, I think, in the United States that Mexican food should be cheap, Mexican food should be abundant, it should be really fast, it should be rice and beans, it should be heavy,” he said, “and that’s not what this is. Real Mexican food is not like that, so I think a lot of it is an education process.”
While planning the restaurant, Common Plate Hospitality team members took a trip to Mexico to educate themselves. They hired a food blogger to take them on a tour of everything from street markets to farms to high-end restaurants to help them determine what kind of ambiance to create in Urbano 116.
During the tour, Chad Sparrow said the group was especially inspired by Polanco, a neighborhood in Mexico City reminiscent of Los Angeles’ Beverly Hills.
“Polanco is one of the more trendy neighborhoods in Mexico City,” Chad Sparrow said. “It’s a very industrial, vibrant, craft cocktail scene and just a really cool scene, so we wanted to kind of bring that vibrancy here, and I think we really have it. It’s very reminiscent of walking into the places that we went to over there.”
The group also found Urbano’s chef, the award-winning Alam Méndez, on the food tour. Eating at Méndez’ Oaxacan restaurant Pasillo de Humo, Chad Sparrow said he was impressed with the tortillas and moles.
“We started talking to him and asked if he’d come over for a week and train our staff,” Chad Sparrow said. “I was like, ‘We’ll just bring him over and train the staff and that’ll kind of give us a one up and some real authenticity.’”
In the early stages of the collaboration, however, Chad Sparrow said he realized he wanted Méndez to be a permanent part of Urbano 116 and offered him a job. Méndez accepted, and after getting his O1 Visa, moved to the United States to become head chef at the restaurant.
“We feel really fortunate that we have him here,” Chad Sparrow said. “I think we would’ve been really good if he hadn’t come, it still would’ve been a good spot, but with him, it just was that extra step of higher-level execution and just an authenticity that you don’t get in D.C. at all.”
Like everything else about Urbano, its menu and ingredients exude authenticity.
“Moles are a huge part of our menu,” Chad Sparrow said. “We have seven different moles. There’s the black mole … a 100-year-old recipe — it’s 32 ingredients and takes two days to make. They’re very labor-intensive processes to make these sauces.”
They also make their corn and flour tortillas in house.
“We source all our corn from Oaxaca, Mexico,” Chad Sparrow said. “There are only six varieties of corn in the U.S. In Oaxaca, they have 59 varieties still. … We never know what heirloom corn we’re going to be seeing. Sometimes it’s red variety, pink, purple, blue, yellow, dark yellow, all these different colors, and they all have a unique flavor. So when we get the corn, we go through a process called nixtamalization. This is a 2,000-year-old process that was before the Mayans.”
On the bar menu, Urbano 116 has 20 mezcals – more than any location in Virginia.
“You don’t know a lot about mezcal if you’re in the United States and forever, like Mexican food, it was the really cheap mezcal that had the worm in it. It was considered below tequila,” Chad Sparrow said. “In Mexico, instead of drinking wine when you sit down, they give you mezcal. And you drink mezcal in a shot format. You can either sip it or take the whole thing, and you finish it with an orange that’s dipped in worm salt. So we actually bring the worm salt in from Mexico as well.”
While getting buy-in for the level of authenticity that Urbano 116 provides has required some customer education, the owners said the response thus far has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We’re under a spotlight, and the bar is extremely high, and the tolerance for mistakes is very, very low,” Justin Sparrow said. “But that comes with the territory. It’s great, we’re excited, we’re glad that we’re under that microscope, because … everything that we’re doing is a labor of love, so to be able to showcase that to everyone is fabulous and exciting and once you taste it, experience it, it’s different.”
He attributed much of Common Plate Hospitality’s fast-growing success to its team.
“We can’t do what we do without the wonderful people that we have,” Justin Sparrow said. “Everyone plays a vital part, and you’re only as good as the people that are in front of you, and that’s a constant reminder that it’s not just three of us, it’s a few hundred people that make this happen.”
Urbano 116 is open daily for lunch and dinner. Its hours are Monday through Wednesday 11 a.m. to midnight, Thursday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to midnight.