I have friends who say they can drink mezcal all night and never get hungover. Over the last couple months I’ve spent a bit of time testing that theory. Just as there’s something different about the buzz—tranquil, dreamy, and obliging—there’s something different about the morning after. There’s no question the spirit, distilled from any number of varieties of the agave plant, gives me fitful, restless sleep—but the tradeoff is vivid and absorbing dreams.
That might be one reason for the nascent northern infatuation with mezcal, a beverage comparable to wine in terms of varietals and terroir. Another reason might be that right now it seems like the magic end-times tonic we all deserve as we passively gawp at the national train wreck before our eyes. Distilled from plants that in some cases take decades to mature, it’s a potentially endangered spirit, removed and consumed far from the place it was made, to give pleasure to gringos with little inkling they might be drinking it out of existence.
Para todo mal, mescal. Para todo bien, también, as it’s said. Or “For everything bad, mezcal. For everything good, the same.”
There are three dedicated mezcalerias in Chicago right now—including Mezcaleria las Flores and La Mez—and quite a few other bars have dedicated significant shelf space to it. The latest is Logan Square’s Quiote, a multifaceted concept from Dan Salls, former owner of the Salsa Truck, and former DNAinfo reporter Paul Biasco. Located in the space formerly occupied by Letizia’s, it serves coffee and conchas in the morning, tortas and tacos for lunch, and at dinner a full menu of Mexican and Mexican-ish dishes. But the heart of Quiote resides in the basement bar, accessed behind the restaurant, where more than 80 bottles are stocked, attesting to the diversity of agave spirits, all overseen by beverage director Bobby Baker, who was tending bar at a mezcaleria in Oaxaca City when he met Salls.
Baker has conceived a number of intriguing mezcal-based cocktails, including a margarita with tart hibiscus, a sweet and smoky celery shrub, and a relatively straightforward mezcal old-fashioned. But to get a sense of the vast diversity of the bar’s base spirit you need to dive into the thick mezcal list broken down by agave varietals, from the common but wide-ranging espadin to the fruity bicuixe to more complex blends and “celebration” agaves distilled with fruit and nuts or pieces of animal protein—lamb, chicken, turkey.
It could take weeks of happy and enlightening sipping to wrap your head around everything this plant is capable of. In the meantime you’ll need to eat. Upstairs Salls and chef de cuisine Ross Henke have put together a largely shareable menu of Mexican dishes and a few mashups with some of the predominant standards of contemporary bistro eating.
In that regard there’s bone marrow spiced with salsa macha to be smeared on Publican Quality Bread grilled sourdough. There are mussels in a Vinho Verde broth, with avocado and serrano, all to be sopped up with remarkably spongy and absorbent bolillos from Floriole Cafe & Bakery, the same used for Quiote’s tortas.
There’s also a $5 border-bridging bread course that sounds ridiculous and pandering but is something you’ll want to avail yourself of: slabs of more PQB bread to be smeared with habanero-compounded butter, and thin, crispy fresh tostadas with raw tomatillo salsa. Do yourself a favor: butter your tostadas. Smear salsa on your bread. For that matter, apply butter, then salsa. Make America great again!
In addition to stints at the Publican and Publican Quality Meats, Henke once was the executive sous chef at a place called Fat Rosie’s Taco & Tequila Bar, a far-suburban outpost of Scott Harris’s Francesca’s Restaurants Group—a place where white people go to get drunk and wear sombreros. I don’t know how deeply that experience informs Henke’s knowledge of Mexican food, but I do know the fried cauliflower on Quiote’s menu looks a lot like the coliflor frita at Fat Rosie’s. Nestle some of these crispy-soft nuggets with fruity Fresno chiles into one of Quiote’s thin, fresh house-made tortillas and you have a respectable vegan approximation of a classic Baja fish taco. Maybe that’s the mezcal talking. But who cares?
The kitchen puts out a few other remarkable vegetable dishes: a substantial avocado salad given roughage with shaved brussels sprouts and quinoa; or chunks of sweet squash smothered in nutty pumpkin-seed mole and showered with soft queso fresco. There’s even an enormous Oaxacan-style tamale, unwrapped and dissected—this isn’t your street-corner breakfast after all—stuffed with meaty maitake mushrooms, its cakelike texture soaked with smoky morita chile salsa.
The meatier minded might divert toward a trio of amply stuffed duck tacos, the gamy pastor-like caramelized meat offset by pickled red onions, or a slab of tender pork collar, smothered in dark, near-bitter pasilla chiles. Or even a Seussian plate of green chorizo, tinted by poblanos, atop a bed of a crispy smashed-potato hash.
There are a few duds on this otherwise surprising menu. A sirloin glazed with agave syrup and mezcal is paired with an overly vinegary composite of mushrooms and broccolini. A busy aguachile—hamachi showered with pomegranate seeds and shaved walnut—like most restaurant crudos, is a cruel, miserly bite that neither satisfies the eater nor respects the fish. Chicken and carrots are drowned in a thin, chocolaty mole with a fraction of the complexity of a packaged supermercado-sourced version.
That’s all easily forgotten at dessert, which brings a dense, moist, yet crusty tres leches cake deluged with an avalanche of fresh whipped cream. And a sugar-crusted hot churro forms a nearly custardlike doughnut to support a scoop of rapidly melting piloncillo ice cream alongside a smear of chile-dosed peanut butter.
Picking apart the menu at Quiote seems almost wrongheaded. The cooking is the product of someone who’s gifted in the same way some people are born to sing. Sure, there’s hard work, there’s planning, and thought, but then there’s this other ineffable thing. Maybe the kitchen’s heart became pure by soaking in mezcal. Or just maybe the food tastes better when you’ve been soaking in it. v
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect the true diversity of the bar program and the accurate topping of the aguachile.