Unusual, earthy, minty: that's how Chris Mohaupt, owner of the Federal Bar and Grill, described the bouquet of purple shiso I'd brought into his bar. He and bartender Jeremy Johnson rubbed the thick, fuzzy leaves between their fingers, sniffed, bit off bitter nibbles in their attempts to pinpoint the complex flavor and aroma of the herb, also known as perilla in some parts of the world and tía tô in Vietnam, where it perfumes steaming bowls of noodle soups and adds raw bite to salads and lettuce wraps. "Definitely cinnamon and anise," Amy added. So what were we doing with a grocery bag of shiso, Vietnamese mint and a fist-sized knob of fresh ginger at an American bar and grill better known for burgers and beers than anything approaching Asian cuisine?
With my mission to eat at every restaurant on Federal Boulevard accomplished, I was asking for their help in concocting a cocktail to commemorate the occasion...something that would combine the predominant flavors of a Mexican cantina and Saigon street food, the two most prominent regional cuisines along the ten or so miles of my culinary expedition. I wanted a refreshing summer drink that would conjure memories of dishes like Thai Bao Vietnamese Restaurant's banh xeo, a crisp rice flour crepe served with hanks of perilla and mint meant to be rolled in with lettuce leaves. I wanted eye-opening tartness like the camarones aguachile -- raw shrimp marinated in lime juice made fiery with fresh serrano chiles and flecks of red pepper -- at Torres Mexican Restaurant. And why not throw in a little fresh ginger to tickle the back of the throat, like the pungent sauce that came with steamed clams at DaLat Vietnamese Cuisine?
For the base liquor, tequila seemed perfect to capture the untamed and chaotic nature of Federal while maintaining an underlying nobility based on tradition, history and attention to craft. Tequila bars can be found lurking in unlikely locations, like the sometimes darkened back dining room at Tacos y Salsas or behind a dividing wall at Playa Azul. More polished destinations like Chili Verde offer an intriguing array of labels and house cocktails, including the Puebla-inspired tepache margarita with its combination of tequila and fermented pineapple juice.
The bar at the Federal stocks a small but thoughtfully chosen list of agave spirits. Jeremy, an admitted cocktail traditionalist and former alchemist at the Cruise Room, suggested Milagro silver for its clean profile that wouldn't dominate the herbs and its friendly price point that shouldn't scare away budding home mixologists. After a little trial and error, Chris and Jeremy discovered that, while intensely aromatic, the flavors of shiso need to bloom to make much of an impact in a cocktail. Dropping the leaves directly into steaming beef or pork stock might accomplish this goal immediately, but we were trying to transfer the flavors into a cold cocktail while leaving most of the bitterness behind. By steeping some bruised and torn leaves in the tequila for a few minutes and then discarding the herbs, Jeremy managed to coax out the spicy notes. Muddling an extra handful of the shiso with mint, sugar, ginger and lime juice doubled the impact and added just a hint of the sharpness that comes from bottles bitters in many cocktails.
The finished drink traversed the territory between a mojito and a margarita: tart and refreshing from the lime, complex, earthy and spicy from the tequila and herbs, and -- most important -- deeply evocative of the two national cuisines that have inspired me for the past year and a half of sampling, sipping and submersing myself in all things Federal.
Finally, I needed a name for our creation. Other than restaurants and marijuana shops, the most common signs along the boulevard are those of the check-cashing joints. Because making the drink generated a lot of interest from fellow bar patrons -- and because who wouldn't want to drop a chunk of a hard-earned paycheck on a few satisfying and well-made drinks? -- I give you the Pay Day Loan. I suggest consuming a few within earshot of the steady rumble of traffic and occasional sirens, within view of the parade of commerce and transportation, and within the permeating waft of roasting green chiles, frying egg rolls, and turning spits of carne al pastor. Keep reading for the Pay Day Loan recipe.
With drink in hand, I sat back and watched the Denver police forming a speed trap across the street with no fewer than six vehicles -- two motorcycles, two patrol cars, a marked SUV and an unmarked sedan -- to pull over unsuspecting speeders and illegal turners. The fusion of flavors from two vastly differing corners of the world mingled in a bright but complex concoction. From the comfort of a bar stool in a dim room that's seen numerous changes in its century of existence, the pulse of the street continued unabated in the midst of medical marijuana shops, quick money services, burrito vendors and fire engines. Cheers, Federal Boulevard; I won't be a stranger.
Pay Day Loan 1.25 ounces silver tequila (like Milagro) .25 ounce Cointreau or triple sec Juice of 1 lime (a nice juicy one; not one of those rock-hard lime-crisis limes) 1 packet of sugar 2 teaspoons of peeled and diced ginger Handful of purple shiso (available at most Asian grocery stores) Several mint leaves Club soda or sparkling mineral water
Pour the tequila into a glass over several torn shiso leaves and set aside for about 10 minutes while you prepare the rest of the drink. The shiso leaves may soak up some of the liquor, so go heavy with the tequila to make sure you have enough for the drink.
In a cocktail shaker, add more shiso loosely, so that it fills about half of the shaker. Add several mint leaves, ginger, sugar and lime juice and muddle vigorously. Add the tequila, Cointreau, and several ice cubes, shake it like you're driving over pot holes and speed bumps, then strain over ice into a highball glass. Top with club soda and enjoy on your patio with a take-out torta, banh mi sandwich, or several carnitas tacos.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.