Sunday, December 5, 2010

El Agave Gastro Pub, Ensenada,BC:Mezcal's Great Awakening

It seems mezcal has been on our minds these past few years. Las Perlas, LA's first mezcal and tequila bar opened, and I even attended two private events of mezcal brand ambassadors promoting their stories and spirits in 2010. Del Maguey has been leaping onto the shelves of LA's top bars, and Ilegal mezcal has been making a full court press around the Los Angeles scene. Mayahuel is all the rage in New York, and I recently visited Corazon de Maguey in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City, where I had also imbibed when it was O Mayahuel, owned by the Danzantes brand of mezcal.

Ensenada isn't the first place one thinks of when mezcal is mentioned. Fish tacos, Hussong's Cantina, the excellent Baja cuisine,tequila shots,Senor Frog's,the cruise ship crowd, but not mezcal. But in fact, many of Ensenada's chefs are Mezcal aficionados, and are great promoters of Oaxacan food and drink, incorporating the traditions into their own Baja cuisines.Manzanilla's Chef Benito Molina always has a small but superb selection of mezcals on his shelf. Baja Winemaker Hugo D'Acosta makes the Lucifer brand of mezcal at the Adobe Guadalupe vineyard, and Jair Tellez of Laja in the Valle de Guadalupe and Mero Toro in Mexico City has also ventured into mezcal.

One of the Baja chef's favorite Oaxacan spots was run by Salvador, a mezcal enthusiast and chef from Oaxaca. He was over at the beautiful beachfront property in El Sauzal now home to El Sarmiento before having some issues with the landlord. He relocated to the tourist zone in Ensenada this past year and opened El Agave Gastro Bar. You can always count on Chef Benito Molina, an occasional chowhound poster to give us the skinny on what's happening in Ensenada, and the Valle de Guadalupe.

Just down the street from those temple of amateur drunkedness, Hussong's Cantina and Senor Frog's, El Agave Gastro Bar is a world apart.Salvador brings bottles he finds in Oaxaca to his Ensenada mezcal bar, ones he's personally tasted and likes. Right away he was offering up samples and trying to gently convert me into a mezcalero. I could sense he cares that the customer has a memorable first experience with mezcal. "No worries, I don't need to try anything", I said. "I'm here to drink."

The decor and vibe is very hip. It would fit in just fine with the Los Angeles downtown bar scene. He carries around 30 mezcals, flavored cream of mexcals(something for the ladies),some tequilas, a full bar, and some local beers.The problem with mezcal bars in Mexico is that Mexicans don't drink mezcal.In Tijuana's La Mezcalera mezcal bar, Dos Equis beer is the beverage of choice. Still, Salvador is a purist, he'll do what it takes to survive these tough times in Baja, but he's keeping it real.

A beer company hit him up to stock their product, he accepted, but refused their propaganda, and said their promotional refigerator emblazoned with the company's logo would go in the back."It's a fridge", he stated, "not a commercial."They accepted, which is rare these days.

He brought out some orange slices and worm salt out to cleanse my palate in between tastes of mezcal,a Oaxacan practice.I asked him what he thought of Del Maguey and Ilegal.He said, "what are those?" You know, I never was sold on Del Maguey, and found the Ilegal mezcal pitch to be disingenuous.These bottles pale in comparison to the mezcals I've tried in Mexico City, and in Baja. They don't elicit the same pleasure, and ultimately conflict with the inflexible position of the true mezcalero.

It occured to me that these were commercial products, and not what is drunk in Oaxaca. Oaxacans paying those high prices for Del Maguey, a mezcal company started by an American? Mezcal is still a delectation that must be sought out by us romantics, us sensualists.

Salvador even makes his own infusions. He gets a mezcal from a distiller he knows and brings it back to create interesting impressions of mezcal.

A sweet,and pink tinted mezcal made from the natural red dye of the cochineal bug, called grana cachanilla was a rose colored dream. The cochineal was recently removed as an ingredient in Campari, many lover's of the Italian apertif say it's lost its flavor. The addition of grana cachanilla definitely did dulcify and smooth out this beverage.This could be a hit!

The house made pechuga, with intense flavors being added by the presence of a chicken breast in the bottle. Normally this is done in the distillation process, but Salvador is doing his pechuga old school.

Mezcal El Diablito is a beautiful joven, or young mezcal, sexy fruit flavors, and earthen hints on the back end.

A more rare variety of the many agaves used to make mezcal, tobala, was featured in the Ollas de Barro mezcal. This is pure Oaxacan elegance.

Although mezcal is produced in other states, Salvador sticks to what he knows, the mezcals of Oaxaca.He is sure to have mezcals made from various agaves, the succulents responsible for this esteemed spirit.

Salvador, my generous host, brought out some quesillo, Oaxacan cheese to nosh on. His food is traditional with a contemporary edge. I also learned on this quiet night hanging out in El Agave that mezcal is a much more food friendly drink than tequila.

Oaxacans are as proud of their grasshoppers as they are their cheese.Some tacos of the salty chapulines are not to be missed, with a little Oaxacan string cheese, and a green salsa.

"Would you like to try my moles?", Salvador beamed. I had just finished a fish taco run earlier in the day and warned him I wasn't ready for anything heavy. He brought out his Oaxacan mole negro and mole rojo on a couple of tortillas with some string cheese. "These are great!", I yelled. When I asked about his cooking he said that he learned by the lash. His grandmother smacked him upside the head everytime he messed up. "Thwack!More salt!!" "Bam!You toasted the chilis too long!!!" He knew he had it right when he ducked and there came no blow. With a stern face, his grandmother nodded,"finally, you did something right."

Salvador and his wife are preparing great food to pair with these fine mezcals. What they are doing here might be ahead of the heavy brand influence in the mezcal bars of Mexico City and the US.

Mezcal pitch men always go on and on about the stubborn traditions of mezcal which are so much more pure than those in tequila country, yet, they are representing a corporate brand. Greater than any manufactured tale, or claims of artisinal production, you can count on Salvador to sort the wheat from the chaff.

This is the best mezcal bar I've been to in Mexico or the US. This is some of the best Oaxacan food I've encountered, and it is just as progressive as its contemporary Baja peers. So, put down that green bottle, and come experience mezcal's Great Awakening right in the center of Ensenada's tourist zone.

El Agave Gastro Bar
Av. Ruiz, 230-A(down the street from Hussong's)
Ensenada, BC
from the US 011-52(646)175-7467


Peppermonkey said...

Just sad that it wasn't open when we were there. I love mezcal even more than tequila

Anonymous said...

Wow...this place sounds amazing. Will hit on my next visit for sure.

streetgourmetla said...

Peppermonkey -it's a short drive man, get back there and spend a weekend.

Anonymous - let me know when you do.

Anonymous said...

I've now been to El Agave at least 10 times. I was there this week. The house mezcal is excellent. The Yuu Baal and La Mezcaloteca brands that they carry are also fantastic. Somewhere on this planet there may be a better place to try quality mezcals, and I will continue to look, but for now El Agave is by far the best. Go! The risks in Mexico involve drug marketeers, crusading politicians, the police, and the local rich. Don't dress up. Don't wear fancy jewelry. Act with common sense. I would also add that the beer bar called UltraMarino, two blocks from El Agave and on the same street, has all the microbrews from the Tijuana and Cucapa brands ON TAP along with Negra Modelo. Ensenada! Go!

streetgourmetla said...

Anonymous-Ultramarino is great too, yes. I was at El Agave the other day, and it is the BEST!!