By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
It takes a while to get to this point, at least for me. When Blue Mesa's tequila sampler arrived, I had already plowed through a bowl of chips. Alkie bait, these chips. In most restaurants, chips are an afterthought, a provision provided for doodling while the server figures out where the Negro Modelo is. They come cold, stale, salt-free and sheened in stuff you swear was developed by Vidal Sassoon.
But not here. Blue Mesa's chips come warm. They come crisp. Blue and blond ones are crowned with orange sweet potato shavings dusted in chili powder. All are sprinkled with salt flakes and clear of detectable grease.
Salsas are equally as good, sort of. A dark, pulpy mesquite-grilled tomato salsa is ripe with smoke and zest. But Blue Mesa's standard salsa with chunks of tomato and onion was uneven: watery and bland on one visit, thick and robust on another.
But the best thing to scoop with those chips is Blue Mesa's tableside guacamole. The stuff arrives on a cart with four avocado halves and a tray of racy igniters: tomato, cilantro, lime, red onion, and serrano peppers. The server stabs the avocado halves and slices a crisscross pattern in the gooey fruit. Then she gouges it from its skin and drops it into a bowl. The remaining ingredients are added, and the whole thing is tossed, mashed, pounded, and otherwise assaulted into palatable goop. The result is freshly firm, chunky, and tasty. The odd thing is the guacamole served on some of the other plates Blue Mesa assembles is little more than a runny, slithering goo devoid of flair.
But I digress. I was talking about tequila. Blue Mesa's flights arrive on a hubcap carpeted in ice with three half-shot glasses planted around a larger vial of sangrita (a spicy tomato and citrus juice that is sipped alternately with the spirit) in the center. I had to work up courage to sip the tequila. Just a scent of it gives me shivers, bringing back episodes of lime bites, salt licks, and throat splashes I'd just as soon forget. Most I have, thanks to the efficacy of the fluid. Tequila scrunches my face and reanimates my mind with repressed memories of mental and digestive tumult coupled with flashes of deviant behavior. So you can appreciate the skepticism that overwhelms me when it's suggested tequila has the same aromatic depth and flavor complexity that drives tuxedo-clad wine geeks.
Yet tequila does possess these subtle distinctions, roughly speaking. It has roots. Tequila is the descendant of the first alcoholic beverage known to be produced in North America: pulque. Aztecs were slurping this wine-like beverage, which had a flavor like sour milk, before the Spaniards introduced them to the art of distillation. Produced from the juice of the agave plant, pulque was revered for its cooling effects and nutritious benefits.
Yet the Aztecs learned that distillation is where the fun begins. Tequila goes through the distillation process twice, resulting in a nip that's roughly 104 proof (reduced to 80 proof with demineralized water before it's shipped to this country). The best tequila comes from a species dubbed blue agave. Today, some 90,000 acres of blue agave are cultivated in the upland valleys surrounding the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, Mexico.
With the surge in tequila consumption and the lengthy time it takes the blue agave to mature (10 years), the Mexican government permits the addition of fermentable sugars from non-agave sources -- ingredients that are a sure recipe for hangovers. But premium tequilas are generally made from 100 percent blue agave.
The drink's distinctions come into clear view after a few post-shiver sips. I ordered a blanco (Don Julio Silver), which is unaged; a reposado (Sauza Hornitos); and an El Conquistador añejo. The clean, clear blanco was subtly herbaceous, while the reposado, aged at least two months in oak barrels or casks, had a gentle amber color and a pronounced earthiness. The darker añejo was rich in smoky complexity with a smooth, warm finish. This is the one that kept me most interested, and I sipped it dry.
Blue Mesa also features a distillery of the month and a margarita mixed from the featured hooch. It's served in a blue-rimmed glass with a shaker so that you can splash more on the rocks when the bowl runs dry.
All of this stuff is generated in Blue Mesa's crisp tequila bar. The back bar is lit in frosty blue. A collection of 30 or so tequilas is arranged on flagstone shelves against the wall. The label of the month's featured tequila is rendered on a slide and projected against the wall between the bottles. It's so chic, you need a drink.
In fact, the whole restaurant is like a diner for the Southwest jet set. The entrance off the Lincoln Park parking lot isn't a door but an angled mouth that leads into a narrow passageway with stucco walls. Thick wood beams stretch across the top. Gray river stones are spread on each side of the walkway. It's like strolling through a river gorge.