Holy mezcamole! I recently wrote about mezcal, the hot Mexican spirit that’s hitting Western Canada like a pinata party gone wild. Along with their smoky characteristics and handcrafted allure, these pit-roasted agave liquors are often lauded for being less outrageously priced than ultra-premium tequila. Relatively speaking, this is true. But don’t be fooled. Artisan mezcal is no poor man’s firewater – at least not at El Azteca, where a three-ounce flight can cost up to $75.
Such is the bewitching power of mezcal. It makes you crazy enough to chase a flight with two cocktails and not bat an eye over the ridiculously huge bill. (Imagine the bushy-tailed buzz from a quadruple espresso, minus the jitters.)
“Are you starting or ending your night?” the bartender sincerely asked – not once, but twice – when we sidled up to his dimly lit bar at the back of the Yaletown restaurant. We should have paid closer attention to his cues. But it was only 8:30 p.m. The evening could have gone either way. And we were on a mission: mezcal, por favor.
El Azteca doesn’t currently stock a huge amount of mezcal, at least not compared to its tequila collection – eight bottles of the former to 65 of the latter. Although eight is probably as much if not more than any other restaurant in Vancouver. And they are expecting a new shipment of 20-plus brands to arrive any day now.
But they certainly present this revered nectar of the Zapotec Indian gods with great ceremonial flourish. The clear shots are served neat in traditional j’cara gourds cradled on grooved wooden boards with a palate-cleansing pineapple wedge or guava-juice shooter on the side.
Our $30 mid-range flight included Scorpion anejo 1 year (deep smoke, spicy bite, notes of roasted citrus fruit); Sombra joven (intensely vegetal with green-grass flavour and briny backbone); and Fidencio pechuga (an extremely smooth, floral-flavoured, limited-edition mezcal distilled with wild plums and a skinless chicken breast suspended over the still).
Mezcal is meant for sipping, but be careful with the brittle, shell-like gourds. Although lovely to look at and fun to drink from, they don’t appear to have been sealed with beeswax and are thus very porous. I suggest you sip quickly, before the mezcal evaporates. (Or perhaps we were just sipping too quickly, which made it seem like the liquid was disappearing faster than usual.)
The service was as charming as the mezcal was enticing. The owners are former servers from the now-closed Don Guacamole on Robson Street. They pointed out purse hooks under the bar, encouraged us to move to more comfortable chairs, twirled us to the bathroom when the mezcal and the music started working their magic and brought us a complimentary order of mushroom ceviche. The latter, gently wilted in brightly tangy cilantro vinaigrette, was excellent.
The menu roams all over Mexico, featuring many regional specialties not often seen in Vancouver. In my experience, the appetizers are very good. On subsequent visits, I tried queso fundido, sizzling asadero cheese melted over a cast-iron griddle so the top is creamy and the bottom is crispy. Crumbled with chorizo, the cheese is served with warm tortillas for rolling.
Rib-eye chicharron was again nicely textured and robustly flavoured. Bite-sized morsels of seasoned, deep-fried beef come on a bed of smooth guacamole chunked with plenty of onion, tomatoes and chilies.
But for a kitchen that makes the effort to offer an amuse-bouche to each table (we had a cup of deeply smoky shrimp broth), it seems strange that the main courses aren’t more carefully composed.
Chamorro was a gorgeously aromatic pork shank that melts off the bone after being marinated in beer, serrano chilies and cardamom for two days then slowly roasted for seven hours. But it was served with a limply overdressed green salad that tasted strangely nutty. It seemed as if the vinaigrette had been made with sesame oil.
Pescada ala talla was a lightly grilled filet of red snapper rubbed with an earthy achiote and ancho pepper al pastor sauce. On its own, it was lovely. But the accompanying bland rice and steamed vegetables (frozen carrots and cauliflower) did not add any layers of flavour.
On a third visit, I tried tacos. The selection includes some interesting fillers, all made to order, which include red snapper in salsa roja, shrimp and bacon in a smoky habanero sauce and crunchy pork rinds. I had the latter, although I would have liked to try others. The kitchen won’t mix and match, which is a shame. Four oily pork rind tacos contain an awful lot of fat for one person. Especially when the kitchen has forgotten to add the salsa verde (if they did add it, I certainly couldn’t taste it). Without the salsa to soften the pork rind, the dish was overwhelmingly rich and chewy.
With a little more finesse, El Azteca could be an excellent restaurant. For now, it’s a very good tequila lounge. Go for the drinks and the appetizers. And if you’re drinking mezcal, be careful how much you spend.