Mas Moonshine, Por Favor

Mas co-owner Hubie Greenwald thinks Latin culture is “the best in the world.” Like the restaurant’s chef, John Manion, who lived in Brazil as a child and worked at Churrascos with Michael Cordua, one of the original masters of nuevo Latino cuisine, Greenwald is an avid fan of all things Latin; he’s spent time in the Dominican Republic, Spain, Mexico, and South America. “Nobody appreciates life as fully,” he says. “It’s not just a stereotype. No matter where I’ve traveled, people have invited me into their homes and fed me dinner. In the Dominican Republic, even dirt farmers are happier than a lot of people here. The culture is about fun. It’s all about working to live–not living to work.”

Since it opened in January 1999, Mas has been one of Wicker Park’s trendiest restaurants, drawing a nightly crowd of well-groomed foodies and locals. But Mas’s bar scene is as big a draw as Manion’s acclaimed cuisine–especially in summer when the French doors are flung wide and specialty drinks from an array of Latin American countries can be sipped inside in open air or at tables outside. Partners Manion, Greenwald, and Mike Farley are proud of maintaining an authentic Latin atmosphere. “We offer a different kind of experience, like going out in Rio, or Havana in the 20s,” says Greenwald.

The restaurant has drawn national attention from both the trade press and from general-interest magazines like Glamour, which last December ran a page of Mas’s recipes for specialty drinks named after high-profile Latinos like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez. But at the restaurant Martin and Lopez take a backseat to a handful of staple Latin cocktails. “You know the way the martini is a quintessentially American drink?” Greenwald says. “Well, we serve the martini of those countries, like the caipirinha is in Brazil, or the mojito in Cuba.”

Depending on who you ask, caipirinha–Mas’s most popular cocktail–means “little peasant girl,” “little hillbilly,” or “hick.” The current association of the cocktail with a fun, easy lifestyle belies the fact that cachaca, the liquor with which it’s made, originated as a slave beverage. Four hundred years ago, so the legend goes, plantation slaves in Brazil discovered that they could drink the fermented sugarcane juice, and slave owners figured that allowing them to do so would improve their disposition and productivity. Says Greenwald, “Basically, the caipirinha came into being because lime and sugar were what people had around, and cachaca itself, the way it was back then, didn’t taste that great. So they threw some lime and sugar in.” Despite the drink’s current popularity, it was born more of necessity. “The stuff is moonshine,” says Greenwald.

Nowadays cachaca is one of the most consumed drinks in Brazil, second only to beer–the result, in part, of a nationwide cachaca campaign begun in 1997. Since then, cachaca production and export have become big business; there are hundreds of cachacas on the market and the government hopes to reach export levels of $100 million by 2002. The liquor is so popular that better brands have begun to suffer from piracy, with illegal knockoffs flooding the streets of Brazil. Some buyers in the United States and elsewhere prefer to import obscure, smaller brands to ensure authenticity.

Mas serves a brand ranked as one of the five most consumed distilled liquors in the world–outselling, in 1998, Bacardi rum, Smirnoff vodka, and Johnnie Walker Red whiskey. “We like Pirassununga 51,” says Greenwald. “We also stock a more expensive brand, Toucano, but nobody orders it.” Despite the popularity of caipirinhas, Americans are not yet cachaca connoisseurs. In fact, many aren’t certain what distinguishes cachaca from rum. The difference lies partly in the preparation. “Unlike conventional rums,” says Greenwald, “which are made from the boiled-down molasses by-product of the sugar-making process, higher-end cachacas like Toucano are born of the first flavorful crush of the cane–it’s like the first pressing of wine.”

But rum doesn’t get short shrift at Mas. Brugal, a Dominican rum, is Greenwald’s favorite: “Brugal with tonic and lime is nothing like Captain Morgan and coke. If all those people were turned on to Brugal . . .” When asked if the specialty cocktails are primarily aperitifs, he says, “Most people drink them before dinner, but don’t drink too many because you won’t eat your dinner.” Another reason, perhaps, for cachaca’s popularity: it is deceptively strong.

Most diners at Mas linger at the bar for a cocktail or two before dinner, a habit facilitated by the restaurant’s no-reservations policy. With the caipirinhas, mojitos, margaritas, and pisco sours flowing, being ushered to one’s table too soon could actually be a disappointment.

The Mas Caipirinha

4 lime quarters

1 overflowing spoonful of sugar

2 oz. cachaca

In a metal shaker, muddle (crush) the limes and sugar. Add ice (enough to fill a large rocks glass) and cachaca and shake vigorously. Pour entire contents of shaker into a large rocks glass and serve.

Mas is at 1670 W. Division, 773-276-8700.

–Gina Frangell

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.