For far too long, Mexican cuisine has been defined in the United States by price: Start approaching sophistication in terms of ingredients and presentation — and therefore cost — and some turn their noses up and leave their wallets untouched. But within the last year or so, Los Angeles has taken up the charge: Residents are gaining a deeper understanding of the breadth of Mexico's food culture.
The same can be said for cocktails, extending past the buckets of Tecate and toward complex mixed drinks. Perhaps Broken Spanish’s Michael Lay and Gracias Madre’s Jason Eisner get some credit for laying out some great cocktails with a Mexican-centric flair, but most of these concoctions are Mexican solely through their use of tequila or mezcal rather than, say, conjuring a huitlacoche syrup.
That’s where the guy leading Mezcalero’s bar program in downtown L.A. comes in, using a slew of ingredients in order to play with the very idea of Mexican-inspired cocktails.
Meet Nathan McCullough, the kind of white guy who has pozole and carnitas rather than turkey for Thanksgiving. Even more, he’s the man who once worked behind the bar of San Diego’s Bracero Cocina de Raiz, Javier Plascencia’s much-lauded, high-end Mexican joint, and apprenticed under Christian Siglin, one of San Diego’s most respected and renowned bar directors.
However, despite San Diego providing unique opportunities — McCullough even curated a soju cocktail program for a French-inspired cafe — the laid-back city near the border proved not quite what he was searching for.
“I was immediately eyeing Long Beach or L.A.,” McCullough said, “and stumbled upon Padre [in downtown Long Beach] after serving its bar manager in San Diego. After an introduction to Jay [Krymis, owner of Padre and WeHo’s FUBAR], I found myself taking over the bar.”
Mezacalero, which held its grand opening on Dec. 9, marks Krymis’ second restaurant following Padre — and given McCullough’s talent for distinctly elegant libations, Krymis has him heading the program in DTLA.
Mezacalero’s strictly keeping-it-taco offerings force McCullough to stick to the basics, using downtown farmers markets to generate cocktails that are homages to our southern partners. It echoes the work of his post-Siglin apprenticeship at La Puerta, a no-apologies Sinaloense joint that doubled as a jukebox bar: a lot of tequila and mezcal but, this time around, used far more playfully.
Take, for example, one of McCullough’s most witty, outright charming concoctions: the Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em cocktail. For any lover of tortillas, burnt tortillas mark a division in taste; you either appreciate your lack of understanding the power of gas on your stovetop (and maybe even do it on the regular going forward) or you toss the mistake. McCullough owns the failure thoroughly: He creates a charcoal-colored syrup out of the burnt tortilla, elevating its sweetness with roasted corn-infused Maestro Dobel tequila, and balancing it with a wine aperitif, cinnamon and fresh celery and lime juice. Set it off with a salt-and–burnt tortilla–rubbed rim and you have yourself a drink unlike any other.
Oaxacan the Garden contains the Mexican state's best produce in a glass. We're talkin' everything from mint and cilantro to hot peppers and bell peppers. Paired with tequila, mezcal, stolo blanco (a spirit made from the Mexican desert spoon plant at Chihuahua-based distillery Sotol por Siempre) and pineapple and lime juice, it shows off one of McCullough's strongest attributes: the ability to fuse savory and sweet in his drinks.
His Oaxaca Shame mixture uses hojo santo — one the most distinct herbs found in mole verde — as a tincture, throws in some crème de violette, dry vermouth and absinthe, and adds Hendrick's gin and roasted corn–infused mezcal.
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He's even created a syrup out of De La Rosa marzipan candies.
Not in the mood for a mixed cocktail but rather straight-up mezcal? McCullough has assured his patrons that Mezcalero offers some of the best mezcal around, from Tres Papalote Mezcal to Del Maguey's famed Mezcal Ibérico, a unique mezcal made with Ibérico de Bellota ham, the unique ham made from Ibérico pigs.
"Ultimately, I have a passion for two things: agave spirits and Mexican ingredients," McCullough said. "And what I am trying to do is take people on an experience that they might have otherwise never experienced. Cocktails are wonderful because they are simultaneously playful and elegant, sophisticated but fun."
510 S. Broadway, downtown. (213) 628-3337, facebook.com/mezcaleroDTLA.