Think of mescal and you probably picture a worm floating in cheap, rough liquor. But in Mexico City, the spirit has become fashionable, with specialist mezcalerías serving high-quality versions of the drink. And there’s not a dead grub in sight …
This post first appeared on the Culinary Backstreets blog
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Ben Herrera for the Culinary Backstreets blog, part of the Guardian Travel Network
Wed 14 Nov 2012 11.41 GMTFirst published on Wed 14 Nov 2012 11.41 GMT
At Corazón de Maguey, mescal is served in small, shallow saucers, with sipping recommended to fully appreciate the drink’s flavour. Right, lengua (beef tongue) in pipián, an earthy sauce. Photograph: Ben Herrera; Carazón de Maguey
The sap of the spiky maguey plant has long been used by the indigenous peoples of Mexico to prepare pulque, a milk-coloured, viscous drink that has roughly the same alcohol content as beer. When they arrived in Mexico, the Spanish were introduced to pulque. Used to imbibing harder stuff, however, the conquistadors experimented with distilling a mash made out of the maguey plant, in the process inventing the beguiling spirit known as mescal.
Previously a liquor considered the province of the poor and working classes, mescal has in recent years become one of the trendiest and most popular alcoholic drinks in Mexico, with more than 150 different brands now on the market. (Tequila, made from blue agave – a kind of maguey – and produced within a specific region of Mexico, is the best-known member of the mescal family.) The rise in mescal’s popularity has led to a proliferation of mezcalerías, wine bar-like spots that specialise in pouring the drink. In Mexico City in particular, mezcalerías have popped up in nearly every neighbourhood, and their numbers keep growing.
Corazón de Maguey (“heart of the maguey”), located in the bustling neighbourhood of Coyoacán, offers up a two-for-one special, with an excellent selection of craft mescals as well as superb food. The venue was opened in 2010 by Los Danzantes, a restaurant group that a decade earlier purchased a palenque, or distillery, in Santiago Matatlán, in the state of Oaxaca, south-west Mexico, and began making its own brand of mescal. Named Mezcal Alipús, or Los Nahuales in the US, the brand is a joint venture among four producers that are attempting to keep the tradition of authentic, local mescal distillation alive.
Though a mescalería, Corazón de Maguey feels more like a proper restaurant, with an open-air patio that overlooks Coyoacán’s central park and two floors of space inside. The menu is not large, but manages to offer a wide variety of standout dishes, including lengua (beef tongue in pipián, an earthy sauce made out of pumpkin or squash seeds) and specials such as cochinita pibil, slow-cooked pulled pork, and cochito istmeño, a patty made of beef, plantains, nuts and spices. Seafood from the coast, mole (sauce) from Oaxaca and vegetables from the ecological reserves at Xochimilco (a borough within the Mexican Federal District) are regularly brought in, allowing for ingredients and flavours not always found in Mexico City restaurants. Desserts include the delicious pay de limón, a rich lemon pie topped with meringue and lime ice cream.
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Of course, as good as the food is, the focus here is still on the drinks. Mescals come in a wide variety of flavours depending on how they are made and the type of maguey used in the distillation process. Some mescals have a smoky, almost campfire-like taste while others can have hints of fruit or nuts. Rather than being served in shot glasses, drinks come in small, shallow saucers from which sipping is recommended, to allow for an appreciation of mescal’s nuances.
It’s important to note that while there are many different varieties of mescals, not all are considered authentic. States that have certified agave-growing areas and production facilities include Durango, Oaxaca, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí and Tamaulipas. Mescal produced outside of these states is not considered authentic, although many mezcalerías try to pass this ersatz stuff off as the real deal in an attempt to break into the hot mescal market.
The stuff on offer at Corazón de Maguey, on the other hand, is locally sourced, certified as authentic and serves as the perfect introduction to the fascinating world of mescal.
• Plaza Jardín Centenario 9-A, Colonia Villa Coyoacán, +52 55 5659 3165, corazondemaguey.com. Open Sunday-Wednesday 1pm-1am, Thursday-Saturday 1pm-2am
Two more Mexico City mezcalerías worth trying
Located in one of the two pedestrian streets in downtown, this mezcalería offers a relaxed ambience and a wide variety of artisanal mezcales. The food is also worth trying.
• Regina 27 (between Isabel la Católica and 5 de Febrero), Colonia Centro. Open Monday-Saturday from 1.30pm, Sunday noon-8pm
Expendio de Pulques Finos – Los Insurgentes
A belter that is known for its pulques and curados located in one of the new hip areas of Mexico City. It also offers artisanal mescals, plus live bands, guest DJs and a jukebox, giving this place a youthful atmosphere.
• Insurgentes Sur 226, Colonia Roma, +52 554751 9326, lapulqueria.org. Open Monday-Saturday from 1pm