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Mezcal steps outside the box with Oaxaca moles and…bugs?
By Christina Warren

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Relatively new to the Downtown San Jose scene is an Oaxaca Bistro called Mezcal

I had heard curious things about this new kid on the block, and armed with my two trustee alcoholics, I ventured out on a Thursday night to investigate.

Situated between the backend of landmark Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph and Birk’s on San Fernando, this dimly-lit, glass-front restaurant can almost appear closed from the outside. Step inside and this same skyward lighting gives the romantic illusion of an outdoor, moonlit setting. And if that is not convincing enough, you can be seated in the actual outdoor dining room, an adjacent room surrounded by two brick walls, another with sliding glass doors, and an open storefront facing the main street.

The inner dining room consists of wooden tables and chairs accented only by tin dining accessories and simple, textured scarves. The theme carries through from the menus to the ceiling. Somehow the elegant simplicity makes the atmosphere appropriate for both a chicly dressed couple and a dressed-down group of friends.

My threesome had the option of cushioned, tabletop seating or wooden booths. We settled for the less comfortable benched booths, but enjoyed the privacy the tall separators gave us.

If you complain to the server about having a few six-legged pests on your plate, you might find a six dollar charge for chapulines on your bill

Before I delve into the details of the menu, I will say this: if you complain to the server about having a few four-legged pests on your plate, you might find a six dollar charge for chapulines on your bill. Under “antojitos” on the menu is their featured novelty, garlic and lime flavored grasshoppers. They come served with tortilla chips and a side of guacamole.

My friends and I nervously toasted off in front of owner and general manager, Adolfo Gomez. As we cautiously chewed through the crackling tortilla and bug shells, he explained that customers often came for the novelty of the fried grasshoppers, but that Mezcal’s appeal didn’t stop there.

…and he was right.

Next on our Mezcal adventure was calamar, thinly sliced rings of squid battered enough for a crunch, but light enough to appreciate the squid itself. It came served with fried jalapenos and chipotle aioli sauce, but each ringlet was so well seasoned with herbs they could easily have been inhaled alone. The key, Adolfo went on to add, was the imported herbs from Oaxaca. In fact, most of the restaurant was actually imported from Oaxaca, Mexico, and he proudly gives business and credit to his lesser known southern hometown.

“Most restaurants [in this area] have cuisines from Northern or Central Mexico…you will never see burritos or tacos or lots of sour cream on [our] menu.”

What you will find are the Gomez family’s three signature moles. There are certainly more than three up their sleeve, but he added that their flavors and recipes might be a little too complicated for cooks and audiences alike. 

Mole Negro, the darkest of the three, had a flavor that hinted of blended spices and bitter chocolate.  It was probably the most common of the three. I have had it at other restaurants, and even though it was prepared skillfully at Mezcal, I was (and always am) lukewarm about this dish.

Their red mole, coloradito, with its smooth and slightly thick consistency, hit closer to home. Even with its inclusion of chocolate, this mole lacked the bitterness of the first.  It actually resembled a family recipe I had learned; yet this mole had a depth I had not been able achieve in my kitchen.  Adolfo boasted that he would gladly give me the recipe, but I would never be able to replicate it. 

The most remarkable of their selection was estofado.  Mustard-yellow in color, creamy and light in texture, estofado was the flamboyant black sheep of the mole family.  Unlike the others, it was unmistakably sweet. (Evidence of its secret sweetener could be seen floating around in the dish).

At fifteen dollars a plate, the moles were easily the more expensive items on the menu. That said, if you let the server know you are a first-time guest you can sample all three for free, chip-and-dip style.

Other than the moles, we ate our way through a number of other interesting discoveries. I had a fresh and crunchy cilantro and lime dressed romaine salad that helped reset my palate after the salty appetizers.  We also experienced tropical plays on common Mexican dishes: banana leaf steamed tamales stuffed with black mole and chicken and all-you-can eat sides of steamed rice, pickled carrots and jalapenos, and a Central American staple, black beans.

My personal favorite was a coloradito mole drenched enchilada paired with cecina (heavily marinated, thinly sliced pork). My liquor-loving lushes argued the highlight of the meal was the four micheladas (a base of Valetina hot sauce, Worchshire sauce, pepper, and lime in a frosted, chili pepper rimmed glass with individuals’ choice of beer), which they choked down throughout the course of the meal.  

The consensus: Mezcal was muy bueno. Fun food choices, comfortable ambience, friendly wait staff and attractive décor – it was all we could hope for on a weekday night.

And if you are wondering what became of our grasshoppers, we boxed them up and spent the night hiding them in drunken girls’ hair, using them to scare doormen, and playing our version fear factor with bouncers. Good times.

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Fotos Mezcal

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