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Posts from the ‘Bars and Restaurants’ Category

A few of my favorite things – Oaxacan chef+mezcal+Oakland

I am showing my bias here… Chef Pilar Cabrera of La Olla in Oaxaca is in the Bay Area to promote her new book – a collection of recipes from Casa de Los Sabores, the cooking school she started in Oaxaca some 20 years ago. Read more

Where to Eat on the Oaxacan Coast: Puerto Escondido to San Agustinillo

This is a cross post from one of our frequent collaborators, Ferron Salniker. You can read her excellent blog Ferronlandia here.

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I’m pretty sure I learned the magic of eating garlic shrimp, down to the shells and heads, when I was six on our first family trip to Mexico, in Puerto Angel, which happens to be just a few towns down from where I stayed this trip. I’ve come full circle, because when stuck on what to order last week I remembered how difficult it is to fuck up garlic shrimp (camarones al ajo). It’s just butter, garlic, shrimp. I had it two days in a row.

After eating and drinking in Oaxaca city for five days, coming to the coast was a welcome relief from eating meat and cheese at almost every meal. But like in many beach towns across Mexico I didn’t find a lot of variety. Up and down the Oaxacan coast you’ll find restaurants catering to the western ex-pats and traveling flowy-pant wearers with hodgepodge menus of wraps and fried things, and a lot of tiny establishments offering much of the same staples: grilled fish and other simple seafood dishes or tlayudas (like Oaxacan pizzas).
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The Mezcal Week that was

So you’ve seen our photo gallery of the Grand Tasting but the week that preceded it was pretty incredible in its own right. Here’s a quick list of events with photos and a few thoughts a refresher gallery that follows.

Sunday – November 8th

Mezcal Brunch at ABV

Ryan Fitzgerald helped us kick off Mezcal Week in style with a mezcal brunch at his restaurant ABV that also celebrated his birthday. The special cocktail and brunch menu made lots of people happy enough to carry the party on through the afternoon. Read more

You wanted mezcal – We’re bringing you mezcal

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As anyone who attended last year’s Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle knows this event is not to be missed. It’s an opportunity to taste an incredible variety of mezcals and meet their makers while also sampling snacks from some of the best local restaurants and mezcal cocktails from all those creative bartenders who are getting written up in flashy magazines.

But this year we just had to go and make it bigger, badder, and better. First, why mess with success, the Grand Tasting is on November 15th at Public Works and will be very similar to last year’s event except that we’ll be adding mezcals and we’re going to have some very special tastings led by some of the most interesting people in the business. But keep in mind, only Mezcal Lovers tickets get access to those special tastings so choose wisely.

The preceding week will see a variety of special mezcal themed events throughout the San Francisco Bay Area including a US Bartender Guild juried competition for the best mezcal cocktail at Devil’s Acre on November 9th, special cocktail parties, dinners, a meeting with key figures in the industry, and more. As we say, check the schedule and get your tickets today.

But why stop there? November 8 – 15 is now officially Mezcal Week with special mezcal cocktails, flights, and snacks available at finer dining establishments and bars across the region. All participants are donating a portion of their proceeds to this year’s non-profit partner, the Mexican Museum. This is your opportunity to taste just how incredible and varied this transformative spirit is. If you can’t find something great on our list of participating venues then you don’t have a pulse.

So, join us and get your tickets today. Last year we sold out, don’t be left out in the cold!

A guide through the Odyssey of mezcal

Ulisses' West Coast tour postcard

Ulisses’ West Coast tour postcard

His name is legend in the mezcal world, strangely appropriate given for the role he plays. Co-owner with Sandra Ortiz Brenna of the equally legendary In Situ mezcaleria in Oaxaca City. Ulisses, Sandra, and In Situ are famous because they’ve been bringing incredible small batch mezcals to the attention of the world with incredible attention to the pedigree of each bottle and deep knowledge about all the processes, people, and myths that define the world of mezcal.

The Catedral reflected at In Situ

The Catedral reflected at In Situ

That’s all great and good but should you live somewhere on the west coast consider yourself truly blessed because Wahaka Mezcal is bringing Ulisses through California, Oregon, and Washington later this month for a grand tour of mezcal establishments along the PCH. Tickets are now available to each of his tour stops from San Diego to Seattle. The Arte del Mezcal class is a full presentation on the history and development of mezcal while the “Meet and Greet” events are what they say, social mixers where you can chat about all the mezcal and non-mezcal topics that you can get into the conversation. Just note that you’ll see two preview events, Ulisses’ actual tour doesn’t start until 10/19 in San Francisco.

A glance at In Situ's selection

A glance at In Situ’s selection

Dive in, I know that you’ll regret not going. I’ve been counseled that there’s a slight chance that dates are subject to change but I’m sure you won’t lose your money because the reputable people at Wahaka are behind this tour. Here’s the full tour list:

Tickets

Monday, October 19

“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal
La Urbana
661 Divisadero St
San Francisco, CA 94117
6-9pm

Tuesday, October 20
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal
Calavera
2337 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612
1:30-3:30pm

Tuesday, October 20
Pairing/Dinner with Wahaka Mezcal & Ulises Torrentera “Meet and Greet”
Calavera
2337 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612
4:30-8:00pm

Wednesday, October 21
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka
Mezcal (Industry only)
Cantina Mayahuel
2934 Adams Ave
San Diego, CA 92116
2:30-4:30pm

Wednesday, October 21
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal (Public)
Cantina Mayahuel
2934 Adams Ave
San Diego, CA 92116
6-9pm

Thursday, October 22
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal (public)
Guelaguetza
3014 W Olympic Blvd,
Los Angeles, CA 90006
6-9pm

Friday, October 23
“Meet and Greet” Welcome Party
Teote Restaurant
1615 SE 12th Ave
Portland, OR 97214
8-11pm

Saturday, October 24
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka
Mezcal (due to demand, pre-qualified Industry people only)
Teote Restaurant
1615 SE 12th Ave
Portland, OR 97214
10am-2pm

Sunday, October 25th
“Meet and Greet” Welcome Party
Liberty Bar
517 15th Ave E
Seattle, WA 98112
7-10pm

Monday, October 26th
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka
Mezcal (due to demand, pre-qualified Industry people only)
Mezcalería Oaxaca
2123 Queen Anne Ave N
Seattle, WA
11am-

Tuesday October 27th
“Arte del Mezcal” class by Ulises Torrentera presented by Wahaka Mezcal
Hilltop Kitchen
913 M.L.K. Jr Way
Tacoma, WA 98405

Tickets

Ulisses surveys the scene

Ulisses surveys the scene

El Barrio de Guerneville

El Barrio's bar

El Barrio’s bar

Recently word filtered into Mezcalistas HQ about a slip of a mezcal bar in Guerneville, CA – mostly known as a sun dappled escape from the San Francisco Bay Area. You may have caught the Russian River scene recently in HBO’s excellent Looking and, yes, it has been a very prominent gay party and vacation scene. But it always appeared stuck in time like a fly in amber, the same tourist stores, the same restaurants, and one of the worst Safeways in the universe.

Signs of the global hipster experience appeared and didn’t close up shop as quickly as past attempts. A cafe, a whole bank taken over by another cafe/ice cream/pie/boutique concept. Then like a bolt from the blue, a mezcal bar. It’s called El Barrio and it’s a real slice of paradise decorated brightly, covered with tile work,  and a bathroom that is more inviting than most rooms in your house. Oh and they really like mezcal.

El Barrio knows design

El Barrio knows design

On the day of my visit I got to know Crista Luedtke who opened El Barrio and owns Boon Eat + Drink as well as Big Bottom Market just a few steps away from Barrio. Brian L. Frank was pouring a selection of Barrio’s mezcals because he’s helped assemble their list. When he’s not pouring he is a photographer who has done some excellent work including a series on mezcal. His photos are up on the walls in all their glory, absent an in person visit you can take a look at them on his site.

Brian Frank behind the bar

Brian Frank behind the bar

Their baseline mezcal is Fidencio and they also stock some of the rarer Fidencio bottles like their Tepeztate and Tierra Blanca which seldom make many bar appearances. The bar is stocked with mezcals ranging from Mezcalero to Vago, Marca Negra to El Jolgorio so you can set up quite a tasting. And they have quite a cocktail list that embraces the standard margarita variations while expanding the whole concept of mezcal cocktails. Oh and they have a great sangrita.

Just one of the fantastic cocktails at El Barrio

Just one of the fantastic cocktails at El Barrio

Right now it’s really focused on the bar side of things with a tiny list of antojitos including chips and salsa, quesos, and pepinos. Never fear, they’ll soon be adding ceviches and braised pork tacos so that you can snack your way to a full meal while sampling their mezcal list. Bright and breezy design which testifies to the sensibility that defines the entire project. I have to admire someone who carries that right into the restroom which sports a fantastic toilet.

El Barrio's magnificent toilet

El Barrio’s magnificent toilet

Barrio’s staff joined in on our tasting and had some great observations about the mezcals, they all have great palates. You know that you’re in great hands with a staff that’s so professional and personable. Definitely ask them questions, they would love to get you the right glass of mezcal!

How can a mezcal bar exist, let alone thrive, in such a small town? It’s the tourists stupid; the same San Franciscans, Oaklandites, and their brethren who flock to Lolo and Tamarindo. If this effect can be replicated I’m pretty sure this “mezcal is a trend” story will disappear. I know that mezcal makers are especially anxious because that’s one avenue for sales volume. Time will tell but every time I wander by Barrio is full so let’s hope that it’s the canary in this coal mine.

Launching mezcal sustainably

Amarás cupreata

Last night Susan and I were fortunate enough to attend the formal launch tasting for Amarás’ cupreata at the rapidly assembling Cala, Gabriela Cámara’s much anticipated stateside restaurant. The focus of the evening’s conversation and speeches was clearly sustainability. Gabriela addressed the topic directly as she spoke of her her history at Mexico City’s well lauded Contramar which she launched 17 years ago as a seafood restaurant in a city hours from the nearest coast and more than a mile above sea level. As she explained last night, Mexico’s rather unique economic and political centralization means that pretty much all seafood flows through the capital before it’s shipped anywhere else which meant that she got the pick of Mexico’s freshest seafood.

The Cala margarita

The Cala margarita

Contramar is now a well established step on the international restaurant circuit and justifiably so. It’s tuna tostadas are reproduced by restaurants across the globe, it has a sister restaurant across town, and Mexican seafood is definitely of the moment. Cala is perched ready to ride that wave with a focus on seafood from Northern California but it was funny to hear Gabriela lament the limitations it poses. She wants her kitchen just to use local produce but keeps running up against how different it is from the ingredients in classic Mexican dishes. That’s the sense of place you get wherever you’re eating, fish in Veracruz, lobster in Maine, crab in San Francisco. Once you carry a national cuisine away from its native produce you get something different, if you embrace it you get a new hybrid like San Francisco’s Italian adapted to California = Zuni. Ditto for Berkeley’s California+France+Italy=Chez Panisse. From the tastes of octopus salad, halibut crudo, and a wild mezcal touched granita it’s clear that Cala is adapting nicely and will refresh the Northern Californian approach to seafood. While Mexican food is taking over the country this level of cultural and ingredient oriented adaptation is exactly what we need to inspire local home chefs as well as global restaurants.

The Cala halibut aguachiles and their unique martini.

The Cala halibut aguachiles and their unique martini.

But Cala’s opening is two, perhaps a few weeks away so we’ll all have time to truly appreciate it’s interpretation of Mexican in San Francisco. Last night was also dedicated to Amaras’ second bottle, a cupreata from Guerrero. Cala’s bar served up a trio of interpretations of classic cocktails which auger well for its future. Riffing off that whole conversation of cultural adaptation the margarita featured Amaras’ espadin along with citrus cane syrup, lime, and orange bitters for a refreshing version of the cocktail classic. From there it only got stranger because the martini zig-zagged across cultural boundaries combining Amaras espadin, Mandarin Napoleon, lime and fennel to arrive at a construction that is wholly of San Francisco’s current cocktail culture and no where else. Suffice to say that Cala’s idea of a Manhatten was equally adventurous. These cocktails will be part of Cala’s final cocktail menu and will be supplemented by many others inspired by the bounty of Northern California’s fruits and vegetables. We can’t wait to see what else they will present.

But wait: Weren’t we at Cala to taste mezcal? We tried it in cocktails but the best way to drink it is straight up which we certainly did in Amaras’ custom glazed copitas. I already have tasting notes for Amaras’ espadin which is widely available. The cupreata was released in time for this year’s Tales of the Cocktail and has been rolling out slowly across the country so you should be able to find it soon.

Amarás Cupreata

NOM O239X

Maestro mezcalero: Don Faustino Robledo

Denominacion de Origen: Mazatlán, Guerrero

Agave: 13-year-old cupreata grown between 4,000-6,000 feet above sea level.

ABV: 43%

Guerrero Sierra Madre del Sur

Fields of cupreata in Guerrero’s Sierra Madre del Sur.

Like most cupreatas, Amarás’ interpretation is wide and fruity in the mouth. Unlike many it’s not overly viscous so it doesn’t coat your mouth. The flavor starts with big agave fruit and then thins out to an interesting vegetal mix of fresh bell peppers. As one taster noted that means that you could drink it all night long. I’m not sure about that level of hyperbole but it’s definitely elegant enough to sip over a long evening, especially if paired with food, preferably a dish with a bit of acid or spice like the halibut crudo that was served last night.

The funny thing is that the Amarás cupreata origin story has everything to do with food. While the company founders were out searching for a good cupreata in Guerrero they stopped at a roadside barbacoa, tasted the mezcal with the meat, thought ‘this is good,’ and kept going. It was only after tasting other mezcals and returning for more of the barbacoa that they realized it was clearly their favorite of the bunch. That food driven identity is something I’d love to see more of in the mezcal world. There’s nothing like BBQ and mezcal, sushi and mezcal, you name it – there’s a mezcal tailored to a dish.

So, why did we sandwich tasting notes in the middle of an article about sustainability? Well, among other things Gabriela also noted that Amarás is devoted to sustainability which is important in its own right and for the mezcal world as a whole because – all together now – mezcal comes from agave and if we don’t ensure that agave is sustainably cultivated there won’t be any for future weddings, funerals, and casual week night tippling.

I know that sustainability is a buzz word and one that’s deployed as a marketing term of art exactly because we’re all so hypocritical in our consumption of bottles of mezcal shipped thousands of miles but the bet is that we can improve this situation environmentally and economically. Call it transformative capitalism or coin your own term. Amarás is doing its part to pull all these disparate strands together. As Anchor’s brand representative, the wonderful Georgiana Green, noted the brand was founded by a social worker and focuses on giving back by making their product and process as sustainable as possible. Just like Gabriela’s limitations, Amarás has to work within constraints: They focus on environmental initiatives that reforest ten agaves for every one that is harvested for their mezcal and paying premiums to their mezcaleros while also contributing to their local communities. All that doesn’t make the mezcal taste better, that’s a given baseline, but the focus on sustainability as an integral part of a product is a good and important thing.

Amarás copitas

Amarás copitas

On authenticity

A lovely run-in with Sara Deseran at EatDrinkSF’s Taco Knockdown got my writing juices flowing. I was just going to the event, not intending to write about it, take pictures of it, just to enjoy it. A crazy conceit – line up some of SF’s best restaurants and have them make their interpretations of tacos. I am not a purist when it comes to tacos – as long as that balance of savory, acid and crunch exists, and the delivery device (whatever variation of a tortilla) holds up and is not drowned out by too much on top, I am down. I remember giving an ex-boyfriend a mix tape of blues music with the explanation of how every culture has blues music if you step away from the strict chord structure definition – what is fado or flamenco if not a serious case of the blues? Needless to say, the tape did not go over well. Words were exchanged for many many many weeks.

That memory came back strong when Sara and I talked about authenticity and she reminded me of the article she wrote about the subject (well worth the read if you haven’t seen it yet) and it opened a whole floodgate of feelings on the subject. I remembered the panel discussion that SoCal based writer Gustavo Arellano organized and moderated at Eat Real LA in 2011 all about the subject of authentic Mexican food in the United States and basically called bull on the very idea. Even in Mexico it is impossible to put that label on things, and really, why does it matter?

I can’t follow a recipe to save my life which is why I don’t bake. When I read a recipe I see a starting point and flavor guidelines. And then I have to change it up a bit. A cooking teacher in Oaxaca was horrified that I made my chicken broth with some epazote – traditionally, that is not to be added until you are making the soup. But I love to smell epazote and I love the smell of broth as it is cooking and so I put them together and created a great base for my Sopa Azteca, rendering it totally inauthentic. But it tasted damn good.

And that’s the crux of it, because really, when you have an Ichi Sushi or Chaya Brasserie or Dosa or Mekong Kitchen making tacos, you have to know there will be nothing “authentic” about them, and frankly I have no interest in creating a taco denomination. But they will be pretty damn good, and like Sara, I think that is what is most important when it comes to pursuing food. 

But how does this relate to mezcal, or why should it? With more people traveling to Oaxaca because of mezcal, this inevitably will lead to lots of discussion about what palenque or mezcaleria or mezcal is authentic, and of course the one upsmanship over who has had the most authentic experience or what constitutes authenticity. Whether it be traveling via car, colectivo, foot or burro to visit a palenque – achieving your alcohol grade by distilling to it, mixing heads and tails, maybe adding just a little bit of water get that 1-2% difference – triple distilling – fermenting in wood or hide – making an ensemble – cultivating silvestres — what makes any of these more, or less, authentic?

Soon we’ll see the final rules and regulations from the Consejo (CRM, previously known as COMERCAM) that will define artesanal, traditional and industrial mezcal — but I doubt they will ever define authentic. This is good and important and gives us guidelines, but what truly matters at the end of the day is if a mezcal tastes good.

Oh, and the judges favorite taco of the night? The  simple and traditional (and delicious) birria de chivo from Trick Dog. The crowd favorite? The duck curry from Dosa.

Quick look: Calavera Restaurant and Agave Bar

I had the lucky opportunity to check out Calavera Restaurant in Oakland ahead of its official open. This is Chris Pastena’s latest creation after Chop Bar, Tribune Tavern and Lungomare. I’d heard about Calavera a while back and was especially excited by their plans to stock more than 80 mezcals. I mean, how could I not be excited?

Located on Broadway, in a restored Julia Morgan building, it is a large, open restaurant with simple yet beautiful design that shines through with the hanging lights (not Edison lights!). The orangish back wall has very lightly and subtly embossed skulls, and a gorgeous long bar with a wall of mezcal that resembles a library because of the wheeled ladder used to access all the protruding boxes which contain all that precious mezcal.

And what a collection of mezcals – this place is serious. Pastena knows his stuff and has put together quite a list with specific selections from Mezonte, In Situ, and 400 Rabbits, plus the full collections from Vago, Del Maguey, Pierde Almas, Alipus, Mezcalero and more. Mezcal is served in ceramic copitas crafted by Oaxacan artist Omar Hernandez. It is this attention to detail that really shows the loving care put into creating this restaurant. There’s also a great list of cocktails – I tried the Sandia, a watermelon base with mezcal, salt air (foam), a sprinkling of chile de arbol and a watermelon garnish. Perfect for the heat of the evening.

The Sandia cocktail at Calavera

The Sandia cocktail at Calavera

Then there is the food… Chef Christian Irabien, whose background includes Oyamel Cocina Mexicana (Jose Andrés’ restaurant in DC) has crafted a unique menu that salutes tradition and simultaneously turns it around. We were a four top of serious and adventurous eaters and therefore were not shy at ordering as much as we could. Everything was delicious, from the ceviches to the refried beans to the chile relleno and to the grilled huachinango (oh how I love huachinango and so rarely eat it outside of Mexico.)

Calavera is the latest addition to Oakland’s collection of upscale Mexican restaurants which makes it quite a place to eat out. Between this latest addition, Tamarindo, Nido, and Doña Tomas it’s far easier for those of us on the east side of the bay to stay local while indulging our love for all things Mexican. I am greatly looking forward to spending some time at the bar, sipping my way through that list.

What was left of dessert

What was left of dessert

Copita of In Situ arroqueño

Copita of In Situ arroqueño

Grilled huachinango

Grilled huachinango

Guacamole with a side of chapulines

Guacamole with a side of chapulines

 

 

 

 

When an espadin is not “just” an espadin

File under things that have been weighing on my mind. So many times I have heard the following words – oh, it’s just an espadin. With the heavy focus on silvestres, and the more exotic the better, espadins have somehow become sidelined, forgotten, and well just plain ole maligned. This maguey of course makes up the bulk of what is in the market – almost 85% – so to make it out to be the industry’s merlot, well is just ridiculous.

So, on my most recent trek down to Oaxaca, I made it a point to try as many espadins as I could, really to remind myself of how utterly different and complex they are and how immensely talented those palenqueros are to get so much flavor and differentiation out of one kind of maguey – showcasing their true mastery in making mezcal.

This is how I found myself one night doing a tasting of “just” espadins at Mezcaloteca. The oh so knowledgeable and charming Andrea Hagan and I talked about some of the different ones they had and then she put together a pretty bold selection: an espadilla (wild espadin) fermented in leather, distilled in clay and from the Mizteca region, an espadin from the state of Guerrero, an añejo from 1998 (in glass the whole time) and a regular ole espadin from Miahuatlan. I really like how Mezcaloteca runs their tastings, and how they pair your palette and interest to the mezcals they have on hand rather than the pre-selected flights so many of us are used to.

I tasted through these in the order listed and of course found huge variety in flavors and strength. And that regular ole espadin from Miahuatlan, well, in this tasting order where it was last, it frankly wasn’t very interesting. So I spent the next half hour or so changing up the tasting order to see how i could get the most flavor out of each espadin. And what I found was by putting the one from Miahuatlan first, pretty much guaranteed it had a better showing no matter what followed in whatever order. And what made the añejo stand out? When it was third up. The two other mezcals were so bold in their flavors it didn’t matter which was second or last.

So, the lesson here – order of tasting is everything to get the most out of the mezcals, and perhaps even greater – an espadin is never “just” an espadin.

PS – I bought the one from Guerrero (Sanzekan) as I am trying to expand beyond my Oaxacafile focus.