If this review sounds a little wonky, I blame Matt Dwyer. We met the charming mixed-martial-arts champion our first time at La Mezcaleria. He had just completed a booze-free diet (to get his fighting weight down) and was celebrating a birthday with his girlfriend. After some friendly chitchat, he sent over a round of tequila shooters. We reciprocated with mezcal. He then sent another round and another. By the fourth or fifth shot, the bartender looked at me worriedly: "You don't have to accept this if you don't want to."
I was done – a total lightweight. But it was a fantastic evening, and a rare one in Vancouver when the random strangers sitting beside you are wildly fun.
La Mezcaleria is the kind of place that encourages you to kick back. Created by the owners of La Taqueria, who brought in Tina Fineza as a consulting chef, the neighbourhood joint is loud and casual with garage-door frontage, high ceilings, lots of skylights and greenery. More than half the seats are sidled up against a long wooden bar, which stretches around an open kitchen and all the way down the narrow room.
The bar's rotating tequila and mezcal selection is easily one of the largest in Vancouver. There are currently 13 tequilas and 30 mezcals on the list, many of which are available in flights. They're served with wedges of orange or grapefruit dusted in dehydrated worm salt (which tastes like briny chili powder) and chasers of sangrita (spiced tomato juice). If you've never tried mezcal, it's time to give it a sip. An artisan spirit made from the steamed hearts of regional varieties of wild agave, it is pit-roasted, smoky and goes down really easy.
La Mezcaleria doesn't sell any wine. Although unusual(especially since Mexico is enjoying a boutique-winery boom), the grape-less bar policy doesn't appear to be hurting it. The place was packed both nights we were there. In fact, nearby restaurants – Merchant's Oyster Bar and the Libra Room among them – are doing a roaring spillover business with La Mezcaleria customers waiting up to an hour for a table. The restaurant doesn't take reservations for parties of less than six people, but the hostess will take your cell number and call as soon as a place becomes available.
Once seated, you should stick to snacks, which the kitchen does quite well. (The main dishes, uh, not so much.) Guacamole is brightly tangy and made-to-order with chunky morsels of tomato, onion and jalapeno.
Queso fundido is an ooey-gooey cauldron of molten cheese. The bubbling blend of mozzarella, Gruyère and Oaxaca with caramelized onions is served in a piping hot volcanic rock pot topped with a choice of salsa verde or chorizo. Be patient and allow the cheese to sizzle a while before stirring so you can later scrape at the golden crust.
The tacos, which come with 12 fillings, are just as good as they are at La Taqueria: beef cheeks are rich and buttery; chicken in mole sauce is earthy and chock full of sesame seeds; tinga de pollo is swathed in zesty chipotle, cream and cheese; creamed corn is scorched with smoky poblano peppers.
As fun as these finger foods may be, they could be vastly improved if the tortillas were lighter, fluffier and not dredged in so much oil before hitting the grill. The chips could be thinner and crispier. With such lovely braised meats and creamy fillings, it seemed a waste to have to wrap or scoop them with cost-cutting bagged corn breads.
A ceviche flight is a nice idea. But of the four marinated fish dishes, only one stands out – the Pacific red snapper, which is firmly textured and expertly balanced with spicy serrano and sour lime. The other three are overly sweet (scallops in coconut milk and pineapple), bland (albacore tuna with pork chicharron) and cringingly tart (scallops and tuna with green apple and chili water). And all three were oddly liquefied, more like drinks than salads.
There is a lot of fusion confusion on this menu, most notably the toughly grilled squid marinated in soy and tamarind, garnished with garlic peanuts. A duck-confit tostada smothered in guava and fruit-mole sauce is over-the-top sweet.
Grilled short ribs, served on a sizzling platter with chorizo, pickled cactus pads, hot green peppers and onions, are beautifully tenderized in a pasilla-chili sauce and served on the bone. But the meat could be cut into smaller rib sections (as they do in most Korean restaurants). It's an awful lot of work for a butter knife.
But of all the disappointments, La Mezcaleria's margarita is the biggest. The bar menu states that all of its lime and lemon juices are freshly squeezed. And in a mezcal sour, shaken with egg whites, it's fine. But in less adulterated margaritas (both mezcal and tequila), the lime juice has a rough, industrial flavour.
Oh, well. We'll always have Mr. Dwyer and our smooth-sipping shooters. La Mezcaleria may be a merely decent restaurant, but it is a very good bar.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
* *Very good, with some standout qualities
** *Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
*** *Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution