By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Thing is, he doesn't really work at Mezcal. He isn't a partner, doesn't have a financial stake in the place, isn't in the trenches making tacos and rolling tamales for the 150 or 200 covers a night that pass through. He's just a consultant -- signing on to help Jesse Morreale, his longtime friend, get the restaurant open, and to help chef Roberto Diaz, with whom he'd worked for close to ten years at both Tamayoand Vega, the restaurant where Sean was still chef and co-owner when Mezcal reopened last December.
But when Sean walks through the door of Mezcal, he looks around like the place is home. Affectionately. Happily even.
We'd scheduled a lunch -- nothing formal, just a sit-down that had been too long in coming. (We'd talked after I reviewed Vega last year but had never actually met.) As I wait for Sean to make his appearance (he's running late, with two other lunch dates already backed up ahead of me -- a busy schedule for a chef who's nominally unemployed), I study the bar and decide it's loaded down with too many varieties of tequila. Milagro and Mico, Monte Alban (yeah, that's a mezcal, but whatever), Sol, Sol Dios, Corralejo and Casta. Sixty bottles minimum just on the side of the center island facing me, with more on the other -- and all of them ranked like a multi-colored Benetton ad. The United Colors of Cirrhosis.
Sixty tequilas is too many. Ten is too many. In my bar-room cosmos, there are only two varieties of the stuff: greasy-yellow-death flavor, and the good, clear white plata for when company comes over.
And I understand that offering sixty or a hundred or two hundred tequilas is good for business. The tequila bar is great for the bottom line of Mexican joints that want to soak their clientele for a few more pesos, and features like tequila flights, tequila tastings and tequila-education classes for the servers can lend an air of respectability to this most maligned of liquors -- given a bad rap by people like me who drink it, then have a tendency to befoul houseplants or do terrible things to the family pets before politely excusing ourselves to throw up.
This is what I think about while waiting for Sean -- drinking my Pacifico, smoking my cigarettes, jotting down cruel notes about the silliness of designer tequilas and the people who drink them. When he finally arrives, he has to first do his Father Knows Best turn through the kitchen and dining room and beg off his other two appointments before he can settle in behind a cold can of Tecate, Jesse Morreale at his side.
"So, Sean, seriously," I ask. "What's up with all the tequilas?"
The two of them look at each other. They run through the standard list of defenses -- the artisan-this and small-batch-that, how tequila can be enjoyed by an educated consumer the same way wine can -- but I'm not buying it. Tequila is, and always will be, whiskey's evil cousin, suitable only for cowboy movies and drinking away bad memories, a liquor with all the subtlety and refinement of a brick.
"Just wait 'til Pablo comes in," Jesse says. "He knows tequila like a sommelier knows wine."
So we table the topic of tequila and move on to Mezcal itself, and how -- in one of those weird quirks of the restaurant world -- I'd first eaten here about two months after it opened, when Sean, who'd already set up the kitchen and menu, was seeing to the slow death of Vega across town. On that visit, I didn't like Mezcal at all. It struck me as either a prettied-up dive or an uglied-down yuppie magnet, with decent food that was nothing spectacular. The service had been a bit stiff and standoffish, the kitchen slow, and while I had the feeling there was probably something to the place -- some germ of a great idea buried under a lot of bad ones -- I also got the distinct impression that even Mezcal wasn't quite sure yet what it wanted to be.
"Yeah," Jesse says. "Were we going to be a bar disguised as a restaurant or a restaurant disguised as a bar?"
"You know, we didn't even have a kitchen at first," Sean adds. "I mean, we had a kitchen. We had a space." But the guys in the back were pretty much cooking off tables -- single-burner butane elements, things like that. When Mezcal opened, no one knew how things were going to shake out, who was going to come, who would be interested in yet another Mexican restaurant in a scene already crowded with them.
But then came head counts in the triple digits every night and the runs on tacos and stuffed sopes. According to Jesse, Mezcal's proto-kitchen was doing more than 150 covers by the time they knew what hit them. Even now, the numbers run almost dead even -- business split fifty-fifty between the bar and the galley. "It wasn't what we expected, but then we weren't not expecting it, either," Sean says. Needless to say, Mezcal needed a kitchen built, and it needed one fast. Sean was behind that, too.