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Bite Me

Sean Yontz has been at Mezcal (see review) from the beginning. He wrote the menu, tinkered with the recipes and staffed the kitchen. These days, he's in the house three, sometimes four nights a week.

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 Tamayo and 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.

"Look," Jesse says, pointing to the windows. "Here comes Pablo."

With Pablo's arrival, the conversation takes a hard right turn back in the direction of the booze, and my education begins.

Pablo is to tequila what a sommelier is to wine -- Jesse's right about that. He's educated; he's well-traveled; he understands the stuff from a ground-up perspective -- looking not at the finished product and working backward to the plant it came from, but poking around in the dirt and sand among the agaves first, then watching the lineage of a bottle unfold. The best wine tasters I know are that way with grapes; they can talk in an intelligent fashion about topics as diverse as microclimatology and import law and what they have to do with the bottle on the bar in front of you.

He slaps a sheet of pictures down on the bar, amateur shots of a Mexican peasant standing in front of a clay-pot still. That, Pablo explains, is the brewing operation for Del Maguey mezcal. Another photo shows six bottles on some sort of filling apparatus, waiting to be topped off with the end product of what's in the still. "And that," he says, "is where it's bottled."

He brings over a bottle of Del Maguey Tobal´ -- the best of the three varieties of mezcal produced only in this one town in Mexico. He explains how the stuff is made from a rare form of agave cactus (called, unsurprisingly, the tobal´) which grows only at a certain altitude, only in the shade, and only under certain conditions of soil and heat and rain. The plant is so rare that it can be harvested only one month out of the year. And when he hands me the bottle and I look at the label, I see that it has been marked by hand, in blue pen. This is bottle number nine from the year 2001. It's like knowing its name.

"Here. Let me pour you a taste."

Pablo has been talking pretty much non-stop. He's told me how he found his recipe for sangrita (the spicy tomato-juice concoction with which you must properly drink your breakfast tequila when dining sur de la frontera) in a resort bar in Jalisco, quotes me statistics about how only 15 percent of the tequila drunk in Mexico is downed in the form of margaritas -- and probably all of that by tourists. When Pablo talks about tequila, he gets a glint in his eye like a scientist gone slightly mad from heavy-metal poisoning or a kindly lepidopterist who's taken one too many sniffs at the killing jar.

Pablo pours a swallow of the pure white mezcal into a short, thin glass and pushes it across the bar to me. I sniff, swirl, close my eyes -- all the things I do when I'm pretending I know something about wine -- and then I sip it down.

It's smooth, slightly bitter at first, with a weird kick of burnt vegetables and the astringent smell of hundred-proof anything. It goes down easy, with just the slightest burn, an aftertaste of wood smoke -- and then my whole tongue is seized by the numbing hit of the alcohol, wrapping it like iron bands. The best Scotch does this -- fools the body into thinking what it just drank was a harmless shooter of Liquid Smoke and Pine-Sol, then drops the hammer only after the booze is safely in the tum-tum.

Like no tequila (or mezcal) I've tasted before, this is the kind of stuff I can absolutely see sipping with a round of tacos al carbón. I can imagine myself down in Jalisco or Puebla, sitting in a roadside pulquería in a white suit and fedora, taking little nips and long swallows of Del Maguey, chased by Pablo's sangrita, waiting on my third coctel de camarones of the morning.

I nod and admit I was wrong: There really is something to this tequila-as-sipping-liquor thing, and it's something I mean to explore in great depth at some later point. Pablo offers to take me on a tasting tour through some of the cooler labels he's stocking behind the bar. Absolutely, I say. You learn something new every day.

"You know, we do this every Friday," Jesse says, explaining that the reps from one or two distillers will come in and do tastings, trying to educate savages who think tequila is best applied as a panty-remover and not much else. "They give away a shitload of tequila on Fridays, man." And then he tells me that even though the tenders behind the bar and the people behind Mezcal understand that a margarita is not the best way to drink your tequila -- it should be neat, according to Pablo, or drunk with Squirt, Coke and lime, or sangrita, like it is in Mexico -- they served 10,000 margs in their first two months in business.

"We went through five juicers!" Jesse barks. "We squeeze all our own limes, all our own Key limes, and we do it every day. So if you were in Mezcal at any hour of any day back then, there was always someone, somewhere, juicing limes."

And they're still juicing limes in that kitchen, as well as making everything else by hand and from scratch. I ask where Sean came up with the menu -- the plain and simple board of fare that, in its clarity, set Mezcal aside from the whole raft of Mexi-Whatever fine-dining restaurants that opened, bloomed and faded in the past two years (Agave Underground, for example, now closed in Cherry Creek).

"This is the food that my mother made," Sean replies. "This is the food that Roberto's mom made for him." More to the point, this is the food that you can get anywhere in northern Mexico -- in Chihuahua, along the gold coast of resorts and forgotten surfer's beaches, even right on the street. Mezcal's shrimp cocktail is served the way it is -- with fresh slices of avocado and Saltines -- because that's the way Sean remembers having it when he was down there. The tacos are the kind you'd get off the street. The tamales are made with fat fistfuls of White Cap lard right out of the blue bucket in the kitchen, because that's the way tamales are supposed to be made, have been made -- when made properly -- for generations.

"But wait a minute," Jesse interrupts. "You mean this isn't fine dining?" He gestures around at the room, with its Mexican-wrestler photos and the giant, doe-eyed Chihuahua painted on the wall. "I mean, you come in here; you have great food cooked by people who know what they're doing; you have a great time...why isn't this fine dining?"

No tablecloths, I say. No ancho-mango salsa or foie gras tacos. There was plenty of foie gras at Vega, and I ask Sean how it feels to have gone from Vega to here -- to have cooked through the fine-dining death throes of his temple to modern Nuevo Latino cuisine while also consulting at Mezcal, its doppelgänger. "You know, I don't want to put fifteen or eighteen hours a day into something that people don't want anymore," he says, reiterating the same sad refrain I've heard now from too many of Denver's best and brightest. "I want to feed the masses." He tells me that he can come into Mezcal on a Tuesday afternoon and see families sitting around having lunch. He can come in at night and it will be packed, with everyone eating good food and drinking good booze. There's nothing wrong with that, he says. It makes him happy, even if he's not cooking torchons of foie or $29 fish specials.

"I've cooked dinner at Tamayo. I've cooked dinners at Vega. I've cooked dinners here. And you know what? It's all the same," Sean says.

I press him, asking why he chose Mezcal over one of the offers he'd gotten to do fine dining again, to do the Nuevo Latino thing again. I'm looking for some big, meaningful answer -- one of those practiced responses that chefs have when asked repeatedly by half-bright scribblers why they went from cooking in a four-star palace of haute to slinging wienies at the Papaya King. But he doesn't have that answer, and gives me the honest one instead.

"Because I wanted to," he says. "Because these are my friends, and I love it here. Why would I want to do anything else?"

Leftovers: Colfax Avenue is a new hotbed of very al fresco dining. Jesse Morreale says that Mezcal is considering opening up the front of the place and building an outdoor patio. A couple miles way, at 601 East Colfax Avenue, Tom's Diner has opened its patio -- a half-dozen tables blocked off from the worst of the Colfax street theater by a tall wooden fence that gives diners a view of...well, a tall wooden fence. It's sort of dining under siege, but the breeze is nice.

And just down and across the street from Mezcal, at 3501 East Colfax, the venerable Bastien's is getting in the game with a forty-seat patio on the Madison Street side that was supposed to be open by last weekend but finally debuted just this past Monday. Why did Jeannine Bastien take on that project? "Oh, I just really hated those bushes that were there," she says, adding that she was never happier than when she saw the first one come out.

The owners of Emma's Restaurant, Garen and Linda Austin, are opening a second spot: Mona's, at 2364 15th Street -- the building near Confluence Park with the big Mona Lisa smiling on the side. Unlike Emma's, Mona's will concentrate on a casual breakfast-and-lunch business with -- you guessed it -- patio dining in time for the spring thaw. There won't be any patio at Luciano's, but this pizza-and-wing joint at 1043 Broadway -- which has already made two attempts at opening, both of which tanked before the doors were unlocked -- does have something else going for it: The owner, Chris Ferrari, is a Buffalo native. And if anyone knows his way around a thin slice and a hot wing, it's a guy from Buffalo with a name like Ferrari. Third time's a charm, Chris.

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Mezcal

3230 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80206

303-322-5219

www.mezcalcolorado.com