Yesterday, a bunch of us met at South for happy hour. The $6 happy hour drink menu looked promising, the snack menu maybe a little less so… but still, this is Hayes Valley, where nothing costs $6 except maybe a croissant at La Boulange, so I was not surprised at the $4.50 Spicy Peanuts and something that translated as Potato Chips (in words, as it turned it its translation in one’s mouth was something way beyond potato chips, but more about that later).
From the bar, I decided to go with something very traditionally Mexican: Mezcal, Sangrita and a Beer. I must admit, a committed tequila drinker, I am just beginning to understand and appreciate Mezcal (which I definitely did at South). So, for the uninitiated or novices, what is the difference between Mezcal and Tequila?
Mezcal vs. Tequila
First, all Tequilas are mezcals as mezcal is a description of all liquor distilled from the agave plant; just as all oils distilled from olives are olive oils. Its the process and the growing region that makes the difference. Tequila is made exclusively from the blue agave plant and comes exclusively from Tequila, Mexico. So far, it sounds… well, more exclusive = better, right? Well, not necessarily. Apart from differences in quality by brand (which would, logically, be true of both liquors), there is a difference in process.
According to the blog Mezcal PhD, and author of the book Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!, “a tequila harvest and a mezcal harvest is essentially the same (with different varieties of agave). How the piña [(the core that remains after the spiny, cactus-looking leaves are removed by the jimador with a special tool called a coa)] is cooked is where the process differs dramatically.
With tequila, the piñas are cooked in large industrial ovens, known as autoclaves, which are large, stainless-steel industrial pressure cookers. (note: there are other methods of cooking and crushing the pinas but this is the most common)… The …artisanal mezcal … process is much more handcrafted and … has been used for hundreds of years. …[in which] the piñas are cooked in an underground, earthen pit… typically about ten feet wide and ten feet deep,
and cone shaped down to the bottom. It is lined with volcanic rock. A fire is started in the bottom with wood. This fire burns to the embers heating the volcanic rocks to extreme heat. The piñas are then piled into the pit and covered with about a foot of earth. This underground “oven” now smokes, cooks and caramelizes the pina over a multi-day cooking process. The picture on the left here shows a covered pit and the pinas are cooking beneath the earthen mound. The pinas in the foreground are for show (or perhaps, they are just happily waiting their turn at glory to be smoked and turned into glorious mezcal!). It is largely this underground baking process that imparts the smoky flavor to a mezcal”.
Sangrita and Verdita
Sangrita is like chaser for your tequila shot, except that it is sipped alternately with your Tequila or mezcal, rather than after. We serve it when we do a Mexican Bar as part of my private chef service, Una Señorita Gourmet or at events which I cater through Tres Señoritas Gourmet. Sangrita translates as “little blood” because of its bright red color. There are many recipes- the one served at South was a really well-balanced blend of citrus and tomato juices with a hint of salsa piquante. There were several nice surprises to my bar service, though. The first was the delightful clay caballito, or shot glass, in which my mezcal was served. The next was that the bar tender decided to serve me an additional shot of mezcal, but this time with Verdita, with which I was not familiar. It was amazing. He told me it was made with pineapple juice, cilantro and mint pressed to release their oils, and jalapeño. It was brilliant: sweet and spicy, with the bright acidity of the pineapple and the perfect balance to the lovely, smokey mezcal. I immediately went home and experimented until I could reproduce it, and just added it to our Mexican Bar Menu!
Tostadas, Papitas Fritas and Molotes at South
The happy hour menu at South offers all of the above, plus Spicy Peanuts. The Papitas Fritas are a must-try and so much more than their translation implies! Light, crunchy, salty but not too, I couldn’t stop eating them. Molotes are an antojito (you’ve gotta love the translation of this word which is something like “adorable like cravings”) made with corn masa and stuffed with almost anything from potatoes to crabmeat. The ones at South were stuffed with refried beans and topped with salsa and crema. Yummy if a bit bland for my tastes. My friend said the tostada tasted like chicken soup, and sure enough, it did. Really tasty chicken soup on a crunch tortilla and it wasn’t as though the chef didn’t have a handle on creating great flavors, the balance was perfect but it just didn’t have the kick I was expecting. Its fairly common, though, to find the usually “piquoso” flavor of that is a characteristic of some Mexican dishes “dumbed” down for the American palate. Having said that, there’s no specific topping for Tostadas, just anything delicious on top of crispy, crunchy golden tortilla. South’s interpretation is sure to please most folks. I just liked the kick I got from the Verdita a lot more than the subtlety of the tostada.