For much of the past decade, the cool kids and the yupsters have been claiming downtown as their own. But as evidenced by the untimely closure of local watering holes like Bar 107 (RIP), a revitalized neighborhood can often thrive at the expense of character and community. So when a local hang spot like Mezcalero opens up, it’s a breath of fresh air. With its homey digs, Mexican comfort food, and selection of unique mezcal and tequila concoctions, Mezcalero is one neighborhood bar that wants to bring downtown back to earth. “It’s a super competitive market as far as bars are concerned,” says restaurateur Jay Krymis. “But what we bring to this neighborhood is just that: a neighborhood feel.” Krymis wanted to bring the spirit of Padre, his Long Beach venture, to 5th and Broadway. He breathed new life into the space, a former Taco Bell, by adding a patio area, additional seating, and colorful pop art painted by local artists.
Unlike the Latin-inspired fusion food at Padre, Mezcalero’s take on tacos highlights the more traditional flavor profiles of Mexican cuisine: lots of spices, herbs, and citrus. Here you will find your classic taqueria fare, such as grilled octopus with lemon, salsa verde, and pico de gallo, as well as carne asade marinated in paprika, lime juice, and topped off with slow-roasted molcajete salsa. And of course, there’s elotes, dressed in tahini, chili, and guajillo peppers, served on the cob with the husk still attached.
As for the cocktail menu, bar manager Nathan McCullough showcases his creativity with a variety of distinct drinks and bold flavors. The Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em, for instance, is a corninfused tequila cocktail containing burnt tortilla syrup, celery juice, lime, and cinnamon, while the Oaxacan the Garden is a refreshing pineapple mezcal drink that looks and tastes a bit like a spiked green juice.
On the subject of tequila, McCullough offers a wealth of knowledge from his 5-year stint as a bartender in San Diego, where he traveled to Jalisco, met distillery owners, and learned more about the production process. He explained that tequila is distilled by cooking a single strain of agave plant, the Blue Weber Agave, in brick ovens or enclaves. Mezcal, on the other hand, is distilled from 30 different agave varietals — some of which can take up to 20 years to fully mature — and cooked in earth bits, which lends to the spirit’s smokiness.
Mezcalero is just a few blocks down from the perennially popular Las Perlas, but McCullough believes that, with the increasing curiosity around the time-honored traditions and 500-year-old past of agave spirits, there’s enough room for multiple mezcal bars in downtown. “Some people call it competition, but I think both places have two very different vibes,” said McCullough. “Here, it’s a very relaxed neighborhood-style vibe. We take care of people, and in downtown, that extra hospitality touch is needed.”
Written by Sophie He
Photographed by Kort Havens