Mezcal is finally beginning to earn respect in Denver, as was evidenced last night at a mezcal dinner hosted by Brian Rossi, owner of Adelitas Cocina y Cantina. The dinner featured the spirits of Nuestra Soledad and El Jolgorio, and proved enough of a draw to fill the dining room at Adelitas as well as the new Palenque Mezcaleria, a separate bar with a side entrance. Asis Cortés, who is a sixth-generation mezcal producer in Oaxaca, Mexico, presented cocktails and tastes of his family's mezcal alongside dishes from several Denver chefs and one visitor from Los Angeles.
That visitor was chef Sean Yontz, who made an impact on the city's Mexican restaurant scene with his work at El Diablo, Sketch, Tambien and Mezcal, among others, before moving to Los Angeles three years ago. He's been back for previous mezcal dinners, and for this one he created a chicken confit dish studded with crispy bits of chicken chicharrón and surrounded by a pool of velvety mole verde. Yontz has spent considerable time in Oaxaca recently, and says that Denver is ripe for the seasonal, vibrant cuisine of Mexico's most creative culinary region.
Silvia Alaya, chef and co-owner of Adelitas, presented a dessert of nicuatole (a firm gel made from corn and sugar), prickly pear ice cream, fried plantain and tamarind-cocoa bean sauce. Alaya has been adding regional Mexican specialties to the menu at Adelitas and is also responsible for the small menu of Oaxacan fare served at Palenque.
Also on hand were Sterling Robinson, chef/proprietor of North County; Jose Avila, chef/co-owner of Machete; and Martin Campos, chef at Comida at the Source. Robinson prepared goat carnitas with chanterelle-mushroom tamales and mole negro. Campos presented a light plating of pickled seasonal vegetables with fried queso-masa balls; and Avila dished up mini-tlayudas with sea urchin and bay scallops. Each dish was served with a mezcal cocktail from visiting bartender Eric Giardina, who works as a brand ambassador for El Jolgorio.
One of Rossi's goals with his restaurant and neighboring bar is to promote the beauty and terroir of mezcal, which expresses the skill of its distillers, the soil of the villages where the mezcal is produced, and the many maguey (also known as agave) varieties used to make the product. He has been hosting mezcal dinners every year since opening Adelitas three years ago, but he and Yontz have teamed up for the annual celebrations at various other locations for more than a decade.
While cocktails are a great introduction to the smoky, flinty and vegetal flavors of mezcal, sipping one-ounce pours from Rossi's well-stocked collection alongside recipes inspired by the cuisine of Oaxaca aids in understanding why he's so passionate about the distinct spirit. The flavors of mezcal have evolved over generations to match with the chiles, corn, avocados and other abundant produce of Oaxaca, which rivals California's Central Valley in terms of the variety of fruits and vegetables grown and its reputation as an agricultural center of Mexico.
While the dishes served last night won't be on the menus at Adelitas and Palenque, there are plenty of moles, tlayudas, ceviches and other rare, regional treats that pair perfectly with mezcal, and Rossi's staff is well-versed in explaining the subtle flavor variations in the many labels, geographical origins and maguey varieties represented. Keep reading for more photos of the food and drinks at Adelitas and Palenque.