THE UPSTAIRS AT BAR MARTA IS VERY WHITE, and at 5:30, pretty serene. Down the stairs, though, the basement is painted very black, and Latin jazz was playing from somewhere (clearly not the vinyl player, which someone was still trying to hook up). On this weekday night last week, the goal in this cozy room was to capture something of the raucous good-time feeling of a mescaleria, a mescal bar, in Oaxaca—and ultimately, to transplant it to Chicago later this year.
Oaxaca is where Dan Salls, owner of The Garage and The Salsa Truck, just spent about six weeks. When Fooditor last talked to him about The Garage being chased out of the booming (maybe bubbling) West Loop, he was still negotiating with his landlord to keep The Garage there, but also talking about other projects he had in mind, such as a mescal bar. Well, there’s news on both fronts.
The Garage is gone for now; his landlord went silent on him and shortly thereafter he got an email from Hannah’s Bretzel asking him to take the address off of his website, so it seems safe to say that that corner of the West Loop has traded Mexican food for turkey sandwiches. The Salsa Truck is still in operation—he’ll be at the Reader’s Key Ingredient Cook-Off event this Friday, where I’ll be judging—and he promises that something like The Garage will be back in some form, somewhere that hungry people crave Mexican food for lunch: “It’s still me, still cooking some kind of neighborhood food. I love cooking for the sake of cooking, that’s absolutely coming back.”
BUT TONIGHT THE MESCAL BAR IDEA is moving right along, in a two-night pop-up courtesy of Bar Marta owner Austin Baker. “It’s about coming back and showing off what we saw in Oaxaca,” Salls says. “Defining and refining the concept. While I was there, I found a new name I liked that seemed to fit it better, and when we met Jason, it opened our eyes so much.”
The new name is Quiote, pronounced like Cervantes’ errant knight but named for the stalk that grows from the center of an agave plant, and Jason is Jason Cox, co-owner of a mescal-based bar and restaurant in Oaxaca called El Destilado. “I had heard of El Destilado, but I was just walking around Santo Domingo [the most-touristed cathedral in Oaxaca] and I saw the sign for it, and I went into a coffee place on the square, and I recognized a familiar accent,” Salls says of how they met. (I know the coffee bar well from a Christmas 2014 trip, but not El Destilado—it opened a few months after.)
Together with a chef from San Francisco named Joseph Gilbert, Cox opened El Destilado as a restaurant with an upscale approach to traditional Oaxacan foods (something the city has a number of) and as a showcase for small-batch producer mescals. Cox is here tonight, with three of the mescals he carries, which he’s chosen to highlight different aspects of the spirit.
There seems little difference between them at first glance, but as he pours sips for me to taste, only the last one, 49% alcohol by volume and fermented in pine and oak, called Madrecuixe, has the traditional throat-searing bite and smoke you associate with mescal. One called Tepextate, 46% alcohol and also fermented in pine, is surprisingly smooth, even mellow, while another, Papalometl, distilled in clay and fermented in rawhide and, he says, from a higher-sugar variety, is sweet and even a little syrupy—as well as having a distinct leathery note. Two minutes of tasting with Cox, and I know more about mescal than I’ve ever known before.
You drink some mescal, then you go out to the street carts and get some tacos or a hamburguesa, and then you drink some more mescal.
Meeting Cox and seeing an example of someone working with small producers to offer real variety and artisanal quality in mescals fired Salls up. “We hit it off and talked about everything. We have so many thoughts and ideas running around and trading back and forth. When my friend Paul came down, I had him bring Jason a bottle of Besk [the Malort-alike from Chicago-based Letherbee Distillers].”
Besides the mescal tastings and a short list of mescal cocktails (most showing how it works in familiar drinks—for instance, the “Mexican Party Plane,” a mescal version of an Aviation), Salls is offering, and test-driving, some examples of the kind of food he might offer at Quiote. Which isn’t all that different from The Garage—there are tacos, and an appetizer of pork rinds, and then there’s the Hamburguesa, a fat patty topped with Oaxacan cheese, with its irresistible texture halfway between buffalo mozzarella and rubber, and (at Salls’ suggestion) a dark, musky salsa. Meanwhile, for the tacos, I accent them from the bowl of salty, crunchy chapulines—fried grasshoppers, a familiar Oaxacan condiment.
“We’re trying to replicate what you do in Oaxaca at a mescaleria, and what you do when you’re doing it,” Salls says. “The basement here is perfect for that, because it’s small and dark, like most mescalerias are. You drink some mescal, then you go out to the street carts and get some tacos or a hamburguesa, and then you drink some more mescal. It’s more than just a trendy drink, it’s an entire culture we want to teach people about. It’s a cool feeling, and we want to capture that without going over the top—without being some chintzy Tex-Mex place.”
In the cool light of a day or two later, I ask him how he felt about the two nights test-driving his concept. “Well, we were packed, especially the first night, so that’s good,” he says. “We just wanted to get out there and try things. It’s too much fun, we have too much momentum to not want to share them right away. As Jason said, ‘Well, if you were trying to nail the busy mescaleria feel, you did it.'”
Salls is still working on finding a space but hopes to have an announcement shortly, and his plan is to open “certainly in this calendar year.” In the meantime he’ll do more pop-ups; watch for announcements on the Salsa Truck Facebook page.
Michael Gebert loves his chapulines as editor of Fooditor.
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