“You are the mezcal menu?” I tease Casas.
He smiles, with the kind of patience learned from interacting with the public, and says, yes, he can explain any bottle in the place. At the time, I remember thinking he was probably covering for owners Dio Montero and Mirna Montero-Alvarado, the husband-and-wife team behind the D.C. area’s two superb locations of Taqueria Habanero. I figured the owners were still in the process of pulling together a formal spirits list, complete with a bottle’s region of origin, type of agave used and perhaps even tasting notes so that bar stool prophets can, for crying out loud, stop calling every last mezcal “smoky.”
But I figured wrong. During a phone call with the owners, facilitated by operations manager William Martinez, the pair said they don’t plan to hand customers a menu highlighting every single bottle of mezcal and tequila available, as if they could even pull off such a feat given how often the list ebbs and flows. They prefer a more personal touch with their bar program, as if to honor Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess whose longing for connection would eventually cause her downfall — but give the world its first taste of agave spirits.
“We’re going to keep it as a conversation with our servers,” Martinez says. “So they can educate a customer.”
That sounds like a lot of work on the restaurant’s end, I suggest, to train staff and everything.
“Yes, it is,” Martinez says, laughing. “What I tell them is, ‘Learn a bottle a day, basically. Learn a bottle a day. Find out everything about that bottle.’ ”
Based on my interactions with Casas and bar manager Israel Mendez, the approach can lead to some deep, satisfying discussions about mezcal, a spirit that has made a remarkable transformation in recent years, moving from a hot gulp of alcohol for the working class to a sweet, complex sip that can cost hundreds of dollars per bottle. I’ve sampled mezcals so different here they don’t seem to belong to the same classification of spirits: One shallow copita cup shimmered with a clear liquid from Palenqueros, a Oaxacan producer that had cooked and distilled the wild agave Mexicano until it smacked of honey and tropical grasses. Another copita was splashed with a pechuga mezcal from Don Amado, its espadin agave distilled with chicken so that it left a distinctly savory impression on the palate.
Whatever spirits you select, they will be served neat and placed on a pristine white plate, along with a handful of orange slices, a pair of salt blends and perhaps a few toasted chapulines to knock back like bar snacks. The salts, both mixed in house, trade on pre-Hispanic Mexico’s love for insects, especially the moth larvae that grow fat on agave leaves. These wormlike critters are toasted, ground and mixed with, in Montero’s kitchen at least, sea salt, two house-ground chile peppers, Mexican oregano and other aromatics. It makes for one intoxicating sal de gusano, a name that sounds much more romantic than its English translation: worm salt.
Montero’s other salt adds a secondary bug: ground grasshoppers known as chapulines. When sprinkled atop the orange slices, the salt mixtures, it seems to me, serve multiple functions: They complement the mezcal, provide a welcome contrast of spice and citrus and basically clear away all evidence of the spirit, like pickled ginger between bites of sushi. (You could, of course, opt to have your mezcal mixed into a cocktail, such as the exceptional Oaxaquena, with its smoky symmetry of sweet and tart flavors.)
By now, you may be wondering if Tequila and Mezcal serves food. It does, including dishes nicked from the Taqueria Habaneros that preceded it (such as those irresistible tacos Yucatecos, in which grilled shrimp and strips of cactus paddle are blanketed under a thick layer of semi-tangy cheese). The newcomer looks at Mexican cooking through a wider lens than its sister restaurants. You’ll find dishes from Montero’s native Puebla, of course, but also ones from Oaxaca, the Yucatan and even northern Mexico, the latter of which gives us that perpetual crowd-pleaser, queso fundido, a cast-iron plate of gooey Chihuahua cheese that the chef bulks up with mushrooms and cactus, a pair of very meaty vegetables.
“The idea behind it is to bring a dish from different parts of Mexico,” Montero-Alvarado says via Martinez. “So we can introduce it in our own way and with our own flavors.”
The most obvious addition are the tlayudas, the Oaxacan street food often described as “Mexican pizza,” because God help us if we should try to understand a Latin American dish without first running it through the sensibilities of Europeans. (Sorry, I digress.) For his tlayudas, Montero relies on fresh masa, produced in-house by a team dedicated to nixtamalizing and grinding field corn. The masa makes for a crisp but sturdy base for the kaleidoscope of ingredients that the kitchen throws on it: refried beans, avocado, red onions, grape tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, queso fresco and your choice of chicken or steak. I haven’t yet decided if its gorgeousness outweighs its deliciousness, or vice versa.
The kitchen doesn’t yet produce enough fresh masa to use for tortillas, which are currently pressed from dough that’s part fresh masa and part reconstituted masa harina. You won’t care much when you bite into the tacos, these folds of firm, corn-scented tortillas stuffed fat with octopus, shrimp, steak, cactus paddles or chicken slathered in a sweet red mole, a labor of love from Puebla. Montero also makes a mole negro, a dark and impenetrable sauce that puts a bitter edge on the otherwise rich costillas de puerco, or pork ribs. But my favorite mole expression comes from the molotes, these stuffed plantain balls whose sweetness is complemented, and offset, by the dizzying depth of the mole Poblano.
With Tequila and Mezcal, Montero and Montero-Alvarado have stepped into a sphere that I think needs to be officially recognized: They’re not just taqueria operators (Montero-Alvarado is also owner of Comedor San Alejo, the finest outlet for Salvadoran cooking in the region). They’re restaurateurs who are building a business empire every bit as rich and valuable as those created by Ashok Bajaj, Rose Previte, Michael Babin, Jamie Leeds and other recognizable figures on the Washington dining scene.
Tequila and Mezcal
3475 14th St. NW, 202-450-2193.
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday, and Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights, with a 0.4-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $9 to $15 for shared plates and salads; $10.50 to $19 for tacos, entrees and chef’s specials.