What defines a gastropub? Simply put, it’s a restaurant-bar, serving chef-minded cuisine alongside craft beer. In 2016 Los Angeles, these sorts of establishments are so bountiful as to dilute the term's value. What isn’t a gastropub, at this point? But subdivide the category, and you’ll arrive at a more meaningful descriptor. Take, for instance, the Mexican gastropub. It’s a growing trend, particularly here in Southern California. Beyond the great flavors on menus at these newfangled eateries is a collective showcasing of the evolution of Mexican cuisine — from roadside beef burritos to regionally inspired dishes, with a focus on quality ingredients. As an added bonus, they also highlight the food-friendly characteristics of modern craft beer, oftentimes shedding light on exciting new offerings brewed south of the border.

When it comes to raising the bar for Mexican cuisine, Ricardo Diaz stands out as one of the heavy hitters. He’s opened five restaurants in L.A. County over the past six years, to wide acclaim. But it wasn’t until 2012 that he launched a spot with a liquor license: Bizarra Capital, located in Uptown Whittier, a neighborhood that’s established itself as a craft beer boomtown. Diaz knew he had to up his beer game to match his renowned work in the kitchen. It was a challenge the chef embraced with open arms. “I didn’t drink that much beer before Bizarra Capital,” Diaz admits. “I was more of a wine drinker. For years we were all looking for the wine that would pair best with Mexican food, when all along it was beer.”

That revelation eventually gave birth to Colonia Publica, a gastropub anchored by eight taps. Although three of them are reserved for traditional Mexican lagers — a nod to the category of his food — the other five always feature local craft beers. “I only pick beers that I enjoy,” the chef explains. “I try to have one Belgian [from Monkish Brewing], an IPA or two, a witbier, a classic ale or pale. Lighter beer works better with Mexican food.” Belgian styles also pair well; the spice of the yeast establishes a natural synergy alongside hot pepper-laden sauces. At Colonia, that spice comes via Diaz’s inimitable fideo — a fully customizable Mexican ramen, built around a broth steeped with pork neck and chicken for more than half a day. The chef recently delved into the beer game himself, launching Whittier Brewing Company, which will arrive in his hometown by the middle of next year.

Craft beer behind the bar at Bizarra Capital; Credit: Courtest Bizarra Capital

Craft beer behind the bar at Bizarra Capital; Credit: Courtest Bizarra Capital

Westward in El Segundo, Anne Conness is expanding the boundaries of the Mexican gastropub at Sausal. The chef honed her suds skills at Simmzy’s, where she became a certified Cicerone — beer’s answer to a sommelier. When exploring concepts for her own restaurant, Conness stumbled upon a culinary void worth filling. “When I started thinking about food, I thought that Mexican food is underserved at beer bars,” she explains. “It’s a perfect pairing for the craft beers that are out here.” The unique dishes at Sausal (Spanish for willow) pay homage to “nuevo rancho” style cooking — slow and low preparation, tons of smoke, outdoor wood-fired ovens. It’s born more of passion and history than of any specific Mexican region.

“Since we’re in L.A., Mexican food is our soul food, it’s so much a part of who we are,” she notes. “It seems like a no-brainer to emphasize craft beer with Mexican fare.” To that end, her bar keeps 10 local crafts on tap, in addition to a Belgian tripel from Chimay, one of her favorites, which she loves to pair alongside smoked pork adobo tacos, with an unctuousness underscored by a rich and roasty black mole. Another go-to combo is beef barbacoa tacos, charred and smoky, with an aggressive IPA. “I surprised myself with that one. I didn’t believe it until I tried it,” she says. For added street cred, the chef teamed up with a German brewer to contract out her own Mexican-style amber. Papi Chulo, as it’s known, drinks like a fresh take on a Dos Equis.

But Conness is just as happy promoting any local brewer. With a background in catering, she’s uniquely gifted at plating beer dinners for groups numbering in the dozens. Later this month, she teams up with Three Weavers out of Inglewood, to match her bold flavors against the hop-heavy offerings of the popular new brewery. Tickets are still available for the three-course pairing.

Crispy shrimp diablo with Papi Chulo beer at Sasual; Credit: Brad Japhe

Crispy shrimp diablo with Papi Chulo beer at Sasual; Credit: Brad Japhe

Other notable entries driving the Mexican gastropub category forward include La Chuperia in Lincoln Heights, melding tasty tortas with a wide array of domestic craft, on draft and in bottle. At Corazon y Miel in Bell, even the pedestrian beer selections enjoy ethnic distinction: Drink a Peruvian Bud Light or a Suprema from El Salvador to wash down the salmon belly ceviche — an unexpected delight from inventive head chef Eddie Ruiz. Atwater Village Tavern lets you build your own “Mexican BBQ” platter to pair with a comprehensive beer list more expansive than most restaurants mentioned above. But if you seek to specifically explore craft beer from Mexico, beeline to Broken Spanish, where, along with progressive Mexican-American cooking, you’ll encounter everything from stouts to IPAs, wheat beers to brown ales, all hailing from microbreweries scattered up and down the Baja California coast. In the South Bay, visit Ortega 120, where mixology is at least as important as your meal. Consider indulging in a face-melting margarita — made with Patrón, spicy ginger and jalapeño — before finding the right Southern California IPA to tackle the restaurant’s bold, modern Mexican menu.

These destination outposts are merely the tip of the iceberg. A torrent of heightened Mexican comfort cuisine is sweeping over Southern California, arriving in tandem with Los Angeles’ growing thirst for better beer. Their conjoined evolution is more than a happy coincidence. “That’s what we’ve always been drinking in Mexico,” Ricardo Diaz points out. “It’s our No. 1 consumed alcohol. So it’s wonderful that we can see the rise of craft beer and the rise of Mexican growing together.” For a city that’s always held onto Mexican as nothing short of soul food, these are heartening times, indeed.

LA Weekly