Mezcal closed its doors in May for a renovation of the twelve-year-old kitchen and dining room — and when the Colfax Avenue cantina reopens later this summer, it will unveil more of a reboot than a remodel, with new direction from longtime owners Chris Swank and Loris Venegas, and chef Chris Douglas coming in to head the kitchen.
Mezcal’s past is as colorful and cacophonous as its interior (originally designed by Venegas — who is also overseeing the remodel). The place opened to considerable buzz at the end of 2003, when Denver was starved for good ideas and better food. Although Swank and Venegas were part of the original ownership group, front-of-house man Jesse Morreale and chef Sean Yontz put their personalities into both the atmosphere and menu, making the place a jam-packed success from the get-go. But Mezcal had lost much of its steam by late 2009, when Morreale and Yontz were replaced by an outside management firm and Swank and Venegas moved to Argentina.
Swank and Venegas returned to Denver last year — as did Douglas, also a veteran of this city’s restaurant upswing in the early years of the new millennium. Douglas’s résumé is punctuated with some of Denver’s top culinary exclamation points: He was sous-chef at Hotel Teatro under Kevin Taylor and held the same position at Vega, Yontz’s starburst Mexican-fusion eatery, which exploded onto the scene in the early 2000s before it was extinguished just as suddenly in 2004. In 2006, Douglas and his wife, Kerri, opened their own place, Tula, at 250 Josephine in Cherry Creek North, a restaurant that earned early praise for its modern-Mexican menu. While running Tula, Douglas and Yontz presented a mezcal and modern-Mexican dinner at the James Beard House in New York City that Douglas remembers taking the more wine-oriented Beard House patrons by storm. But Tula didn’t last much longer than Vega had.
After that, the couple left Denver with their kids. Douglas worked first for Laurent Gras at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco and then was head of the butcher program at the French Laundry in Yountville, California, when Kerri was diagnosed with cancer. The family moved back to Denver so that Kerri could receive treatment, but she passed away a year ago. In the intervening months, Douglas has understandably stayed out of the chef’s spotlight — but he’s been friends with Swank and Venegas for years, so when they approached him about heading the kitchen at a revived Mezcal, he thought it would be a good opportunity to honor his wife’s memory by returning to the style of Mexican cooking they both loved.
Douglas is known to his friends as “Cactus”; his parents were free spirits — “to say the least,” he notes — and named him Cactus Jack when he was born, only legally changing his name to Chris when he was four. Still, Cactus is a fitting nickname for a chef who has devoted much of his career to Mexico’s cuisine. “I love the simplicity of Mexican food, the focus on ingredients,” he says.
Although Douglas plans to overhaul Mezcal’s menu, he promises that “we’re going to keep the Mexican favorites that Mezcal is known for. I don’t want to get too far out of the box. It will be clean, seasonal and with attention to detail.”
Part of his plan is to source the best local ingredients while still maintaining Mezcal’s accessible price point. Douglas’s experience as a butcher — which includes a stint at Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe — means he’ll be focusing on the quality of meat and “building relationships with farmers, respecting the animals and the farmers and ranchers. I like that community feel,” he says. He even visits slaughterhouses to ensure that the meat he’s buying is up to his standards.
While this approach sounds like it could add to food costs, Douglas explains that building relationships with purveyors allows him to keep costs lower, as does using less-prestigious cuts of meat. “I’d rather have a skirt steak than a filet,” he notes.
Some of the new dishes Douglas plans to introduce include a roasted-poblano queso fundido with chorizo jam — a dish that captures the fun of chips and dip while remaining rooted in tradition, he says. He’ll also make duck tamales using duck fat instead of lard in the corn masa, and mole-dry-rubbed ribs cooked in banana leaves and glazed with tamarind barbecue sauce with a side of fresh corn slaw. For meatless options, he will introduce a vegan tamal with caramelized onion and plantain, using coconut oil in both the mole and the masa.
Douglas is looking forward to getting back in the kitchen and bringing his crew up to speed on the new menu. “I like teaching people,” he explains; that’s a big part of reason he turned his attention to behind-the-scenes restaurant skills like the butcher position at the French Laundry.
But Mezcal will be getting plenty of attention up front, too. Swank and Venegas are updating the dining room, keeping the bright colors and Mexican movie-star motif but adding new features like historical elements that refer to the Chicano movement and Mexican feminism. “We want to keep the things that give Mezcal its identity,” Venegas says. “I’ll be encompassing more of Mexico, not just the film stars and kitsch.”
The bar area will be opened up, and a heavy, wood-topped community table added as an extension of the bar. A large booth will replace table seating in the back grotto. Both the bar and the kitchen will receive new equipment and layouts to improve efficiency and flow.
Swank points out that Mezcal was a leader in the tequila, mezcal and modern-Mexican movement when it opened more than a decade ago; he wants the restaurant to continue to stay in the forefront, while also reclaiming its place as a key player on Colfax. Swank has been a part of the neighborhood for decades, having restored and opened the Bluebird Theater in 1994 (he also purchased the Goosetown Tavern last year). The Bluebird District is on an upswing right now, he points out, thanks to the work of the newly revitalized Bluebird Business Improvement District, and he wants to make sure Mezcal is along for the ride.
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For Douglas, Venegas and Swank, the rebirth of Mezcal represents a new life in Denver for all of them. And for the rest of Denver, it could represent the resurrection of a once-raucous favorite.