Mescal adds to the fun at casual La Mezcaleria

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Molcajete is the term for a Mexican mortar and pestle, but the squat three-legged-bowl portion of this ancient tool made of volcanic rock also makes a fine fondue pot, as a visit to La Mezcaleria proves. Queso fundido—cheese fondue—is the signature item at this Commercial Drive spot, and when the server delivered the striking dish, she gave very clear instructions not to touch the black vessel itself. We complied, at first. After a while, it was just too tempting not to place our hands on it. Sure enough, the thing was still screaming hot a good 20 minutes after landing on our table.

      To get so searing, the bowls rest upside down on the kitchen’s grill until a fondue order comes in. From there, in goes a blend of Oaxaca cheese, mozzarella, Gruyère, and caramelized onions. You get your choice of toppings—salsa roja, salsa verde, or Mexican chorizo sausage—then you scoop it all up onto an accompanying soft tortilla. Just when we thought we were finished, that attentive server let us know that in fact we were about to leave behind the best part: the slightly browned layer of cheese that was lining the entire bowl, almost baked on. Here’s where you get out your knives and start digging, scraping, and chipping that cheese away. Put a little salsa on top of what’s like a cheese cracker and you’ve got something Rick Bayless would go gaga over.

      The queso fundido is a must-have at La Mezcaleria, and so is anything made with the restaurant’s titular liquor. Bars and restaurants specializing in the typically smoky spirit are gaining popularity in places like New York and Berlin, and here in Vancouver, the team behind La Taqueria—Marcelo Ramirez, Ignacio Arrieta, Alfonso Sanz, and Andrew Morales—wanted to be the first in Canada to do the same.

      Mescal is distilled from the mash derived from the steamed hearts of certain agave plants. Tequila is a form of mescal that can only be produced in certain areas of Mexico, largely in the state of Jalisco, with fine varieties consisting of pure blue agave. Mescal, by contrast, comes from Oaxaca, usually handmade from the espadin agave on an artisanal scale in small family operations. Like Scotch and wine, there’s a vast range of flavour profiles associated with mescal.

      La Mezcaleria offers several types to choose from as well as mescal and tequila flights, in addition to a collection of stellar cocktails centred on the stuff. The Santa Maria features mescal infused with honey and star anise and kicks it with a bit of citrus, while the Mezcal Sour combines the spirit with Cointreau, lemon, and egg white to silky-smooth effect. If you like Caesars, try the one here, made with an ancho-chile-and-cumin-infused silver tequila, the glass rimmed with chile powder and salt.

      Under the direction of chef Alejandro Cruz, a native of Guadalajara, and consulting chef Tina Fineza, the food here is authentic and, in a word, excelente. The restaurant’s focus is on straightforward Mexican fare, the kind of dishes you can imagine Cruz’s grandma making for her family. “The style is cenduría—it’s homey and casual, nothing too extravagant or upscale,” Morales says in a follow-up phone call. Prices are reasonable; four meat tacos, for example, go for $9.50.

      As fresh as can be, guacamole is chunky and sufficiently salty. The ceviche is bright, the red snapper just the right, slightly chewy texture. We loved the zarandeado fish tacos, the name referring to the marinade of dried chile and tomato purée. Flash-fried Pacific cod was used on our visit, but the type of fish varies. The only thing missing from the pulled-chicken flautas, served with rice and refried black beans, is a tableside mariachi band. The braised-beef-cheek tacos were the sole plate to disappoint, bland and oily.
      Of course, bland can be overcome by topping those tacos with any of the four types of salsa in plastic squeeze bottles that come with every item: verde, chipotle, árbol, and habanero. A word on that last one: for heaven’s sakes, go easy. After putting a small dot of the sauce on his food, it took 15 minutes for our six-foot-four male hockey-player friend to stop sweating and regain the ability to speak.

      Dinner for four adults and four kids, including six cocktails, came to $132 before tax and tip.