A SPECIAL BOTTLE GANG ABROAD REPORT FROM CHICAGO
WE'RE USED TO GOING INTO bars and getting static over wanting things like Campari, Red Breast whiskey and other exotic things, but the waiter's reply at Chicago's Rick Bayless-owned Topolobampo to a request for a gin and soda?
"We don't have gin."
That's because what Topolobampo has is over a hundred different kinds of tequila and a special rotating drink menu. Why would you want anything as humdrum as a gin and soda when you can try something exotic?
The Trago Bravo is a couple ounces of 100% Blue Agave Silver tequila (Tres Mujers) served beside another couple ounces of spicy sangrita with a serrano chile split and jammed on the side. The chaser is rimmed with salt, and the idea here is to sip the tequila, bite the chile, and drink the chaser. The tequila has a decidedly buttery aroma and a woody smooth flavor and personally, we don't think you need to cut it with a chaser, but it turns out the chaser is delicious as well. Sangrita is the Mexican version of a Bloody Mary and not-- as it turns out-- a Margarita crossed with sangria. The chile? Well, that's a spicy meatball. Definitely bite it, but watch out for the seeds-- they'll mess you up. When everything is combined in the approved order, the effect is a broad swath of spice, from the smooth heat of the tequila to the sharper tang of the chile and finally the savory spice of the sangrita.
One of the seasonal Margaritas was a Blood Orange Margarita, prepared with reposado tequila, Hornitos, Cointreau, organic lime and fresh blood orange juice. Quite a good margarita, but not as exciting as it should have been, was the general consensus. Because you know what? Blood oranges are really just red oranges.
The Mezcal Maragarita was an entirely different affair. Made with Del Maguey Single Village artisanal mescal from Oaxaca, Don Pedro brandy, Peychaud bitters and lime juice, the waiter recommended it as his favorite, and it was pretty damn special. Appropriately for something from Oaxaca, it had a smokiness you rarely find in a drink-- a really unique flavor for a margarita. The waiter was right; this drink kicks ass.
For the second round, we started with a Chamochela, a Mexican beer cocktail composed of spicy-fruity chamoy salsa, fresh lime and Tecate in a salt-rimmed glass over ice. As we'd come to expect by now, this was an interesting combo-- not sweet, which is what the presentation would lead you to believe, but not spicy or bitter or anything else, really. Kind of flat in flavor but fizzy in texture. As a companion drink for a meal (which is how we were enjoying it), it's not the best, but a pitcher of these on a hot summer day on a porch? Dial it up.
We also sampled a more involved take on the sangrita, the Vampiro Fronterizo. Made with Bayless' Maraca Bloody Mary mix, Oro Azul Silver tequila, fresh lime juice and a hint of smoky chipotle seasoning, the Vampiro is another smoky wonder. The ingredients have a tendency to separate out a bit, so you need to keep stirring it to get the full effect, but provided you can keep your stir on, it's a delicious and spicy take on the Bloody Mary.
All in all, we barely missed having access to a full bar, and these specialty drinks certainly paired up excellently well with our food. As a bonus, they weren't terribly expensive for a fine dining experience, topping at $11 for the Blood Orange Margarita, and the adventurous Trago Bravo and Vampiro Fronterizo were $8, which is around what you'd pay for a run-of-the-mill mojito at Bar Abilene.
It can be tough to get a table at Topolobampo, but if you're down Chicago way, consider hitting up the bar and sampling some exotic takes on traditional Mexican drinks. (McPHERSON)