Oysters + Tacos = A Delicious Match Made in The Edge District’s Casa Pearl
Perhaps the most acclaimed restaurant in The Edge District is Casa Pearl, which has generated mentions in Forbes and Southern Living in addition to earning a slew of local honors.
The former Texaco gas station renovated by owner and chef Mikey Maksimowicz earned three golds in Coastal Virginia Magazine’s 2020 Awards with “bests” for overall restaurant on the Peninsula, tapas and seafood.
“Baffling” is the word Maksimowicz chooses first to describe the sensation that is Casa Pearl, a restaurant specializing in whimsical creations where seafood and taco share double billing. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Maksimowicz was the teenager who doused his Thanksgiving turkey in ketchup much to his grandparents’ chagrin.
“I did that until I was 18,” he says.
Marrying the bounty from the Mid-Atlantic region with Latin-inspired tacos and serving everything on small plates to encourage hands-only eating is a concept Maksimowicz settled on after years of professional culinary training. He wasn’t sure how accepting the Williamsburg community would be when Casa Pearl first opened its doors in 2018.
“I wondered if I would end up standing in a restaurant by myself and only afford to have myself on staff,” he says. “I am honestly baffled by how well-received it’s been by the community. Of all the restaurants I’ve worked in during my entire life, the amount of repeat guests is unbelievable. There are faces I see three or four days a week, and we’re only open five days a week.”
Maksimowicz didn’t plan to go to chef school at all. As a student at Virginia Wesleyan University, he majored in history with a plan to flee his Northern Neck roots for parts unknown once he finished. The Civil War buff wanted to teach in high school.
But spending summers working in Outer Banks introduced him to the behind-the-scenes life of a restaurant — hot, high pressure days and nights that he found addicting.
“I fell in love with the daily operations of a restaurant, so I realized history wasn’t the path I wanted to do,” he says. “I loved the camaraderie and teamwork of what it entails to be successful in the restaurant business.”
Traveling appealed to him, too — he notes everyone eats, so jobs are plentiful — and he moved often in his 20s.
Instead of returning to Virginia Wesleyan for a second year, he left for Manhattan’s French Culinary Institute, today the International Culinary Center. After graduation, he spent five years in Florida cooking before making year-long stops in France and Argentina, learning those styles. After five years in Washington, D.C., and another two in Charleston, South Carolina, he began devising the concept that today is Casa Pearl.
Maksimowicz knew he wanted an industrial space, something unlike a fine dining environment. Instead of an upscale special occasion restaurant, he favored a neighborhood place where people would feel comfortable going to regularly. Given those parameters, he was delighted to invest in an abandoned Texaco station on Merrimac Trail and transform it into something unique.
“The eating-with-the-hands aspect is where it transpired to something that’s more casual,” he says. Maksimowicz remembers his parents telling him not to use his hands to eat. “The more I was told not to do something, the more I wanted to do it.”
Maksimowicz rejected strictly seafood as that would make the restaurant one of many. Pasta and pizza places are also plentiful in Williamsburg.
But oysters and tacos — nobody was doing that.
The Casa Pearl menu isn’t extensive but it’s eclectic. In lieu of traditional chips and dip, Casa Pearl serves barbecue spiced chicharrons with pimento cheese and pickled vegetables. Tacos, $6 apiece, include an Oyster Po-Boy Taco and a Grilled Fish Taco, the two most popular selections. Customers rave about the signature margarita that combines Lunazul, Cointreau, Ancho Reyes Chile, Lime, Agave and Grapefruit Jalapeño Bitter.
“Every time I try to change the menu, there’s a lot of pushback from the guests so I stand firmly by giving people what they want,” Maksimowicz says. “We buy all of our fish whole; nothing is frozen. We cut everything in house and make a beautiful chimichurri and marinate the fish for 24 hours. The fish is grilled to order. The tortillas are grilled fresh for every single order. All the accoutrements are prepared fresh daily.”
So much freshness is challenging, “But that’s what differentiates us,” he says.
Casa Pearl survived COVID by adding takeout and expanding its outdoor space. A covered patio with a red awning to match the aesthetics of the building will open on May 18. Maksimowicz is also considering opening a second location — maybe another Casa Pearl or possibly something entirely different — but hasn’t finalized any plans yet.
As popular as Casa Pearl is already, Maksimowicz excited about the future of The Edge District. “Part of the reason why we picked this side of town is because we saw the potential for growth in the area,” he says. “With Shorty’s and Virginia Beer Company and Cochon and Shoofly, all really cool restaurants, we never get the credit because we weren’t in the “cool” part of town. We weren’t in CW (Colonial Williamsburg). We always took a back seat to these other places. I think the push for The Edge is pretty cool.”
And now The Edge is the cool side of town!
Casa Pearl at 722 Merrimac Trail is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon-3 p.m. and 4-8 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays noon-3 p.m. and 4-9 p.m.; and Sundays noon-3 p.m. and 4-7 p.m. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.