Casa Mezcal

A boozy Oaxacan cultural center takes root on the LES.

  • Photographs: Lizz Kuehl

Photographs: Lizz Kuehl

We've long held that one of best ways to get to know a culture is through its booze. At Casa Mezcal, the namesake tipple—a traditional spirit that derives its smoky flavor from roasted agave plants (tequila is a type of unsmoked mescal)—provides an enchanting introduction to Oaxaca, the southern Mexican state where most mescal is made. Colorful folk art—including handmade ceramics and an imposing stuffed turkey—packs the room, reflecting the travels of co-owners Ignacio Carballido and artist Guillermo Olgun. And serving drinks is just phase one of a plan to turn the three-level space into a full-blown cultural center: Next month, they intend to add an upstairs gallery for emerging artists and a basement performance space with weekly film screenings. For now, Casa Mezcal works just fine as a bar, a worthy ambassador for a misunderstood spirit.

Drink this: The owners import the Los Amantes label, listing five varieties of the brand as "house mescals"—look for the blue-bottled "wild mescals" that come from artisanal distillers deep in the Oaxacan mountains and can't be found anywhere else in the city. Other rare gems include the complex Del Maguey San Luis del Rio ($15), which balances deep earthiness with lighter fruit notes. For something less cerebral, try the agave-based booze in bright cocktails, which can be ordered with various house-made salts clinging to the rim. We like the Mayan Riviera ($13)—guava and agave nectar lend sweetness, while serrano pepper provides a lingering heat.

Good for: The artsy environs and adventurous fare—including bowls of nutty roasted grasshoppers—make Casa Mezcal an offbeat date spot. It's not all smoochy couples, though: On weekend nights, Mexican tunes and friendly chatter offer a refreshing alternative to the usual LES debauchery.

The clincher: Gratis snacks—including fresh pico de gallo and jicama sticks dusted with salt and dried agave worms—are a good match for mescal's saline qualities. A full menu featuring more substantial bites is set to launch this week, spotlighting shareable Mexican comfort foods such as tacos de cazuela (tortillas topped with traditional stews). 86 Orchard St between Grand and Broome Sts (212-777-2600). Mon--Wed, Sun 5pm--2am; Thu--Sat 5pm--4am.

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