Bar-centric restaurants offer an education on the breadth and complexity of tequila’s smoky cousin

By Gillian Ferguson (gillian.ferguson@gmail.com)

Scopa Italian Roots’mezcal menu reads like a wine list Photo by  Gillian Ferguson

Scopa Italian Roots’mezcal menu reads like a wine list
Photo by Gillian Ferguson

“Would you like worm salt with that?”

The first time I heard this question at Scopa Italian Roots, I was convinced the bartender said “warm salt.” But what arrived was a cascading pile of salt seasoned with dried larvae and chili powder, alongside two thin orange wheels and a generous pour of the pechuga mezcal I had just ordered.

Depending on your perspective, Scopa is a bar with great food or a restaurant with a spectacular bar program. The food menu reads like a greatest hits of Italian American comfort food — one page of crowd-pleasers like meatballs and squid-ink calamari that keep the dining room packed. The spirits list is where things get interesting. Comprising eight well-worn pieces of paper held together on a clipboard, it begins with almost two pages of American whiskey before launching into a third page of scotch. Rum, tequila and mezcal are given their own legal-size pages at 12-point font, while vodka is reduced to a noticeably concise list of five bottles.

Co-owners Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix have made a career opening buzzy cocktail bars, but Scopa was their first Westside venture with chef-partner Antonia Lofaso and notably the first destination watering hole for mezcal lovers west of the 405.

While mixing a mezcal white negroni, barman Max Kestenbaum delivered a concise lesson on the distinctions between mezcal and tequila, its agave cousin.

“There are three differences,” he explained. “Tequila has to be made with 100% blue agave. It has to be from Jalisco, and it has to be baked.” He paused for a moment to strain the pale yellow cocktail over a single ice cube. “Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from many agave varieties. It’s most often made in Oaxaca and it’s pit-roasted, which gives it that smoky flavor.”

The mezcal list at Scopa reads like a wine list: producers, varietals and geographic location are printed from left to right. And, just like wine, who makes it, what it’s made of and where it’s grown all affect how it tastes.

First-timers will appreciate the bright, floral notes of the Tobalá agave, while seasoned mezcal fans may prefer the savory quality of pechuga, a style of production in which a raw chicken breast is hung over the pot during distillation. While it seems odd at first, the pechuga tradition dates back centuries and turns out to be a satisfying alternative to dessert when served with a wheel of orange dipped in that chili-laced worm salt.

Across town at Tacoteca in Santa Monica, the worm salt is housed in a quart-size deli cup behind
the bar.

“Don’t worry,” the bartender reassures me, “there are no worms inside.”

She lifts the lid to reveal the same combination of salt, dried agave larvae and chili powder, which gives the mixture a cinnamon hue.

Like Scopa, Tacoteca serves mezcal the traditional way — with orange rounds and worm salt. And while the presentation is reminiscent of college-town dive bars where tequila is too often delivered with a lime wedge and a saltshaker, the intention is for the mezcal to be sipped slowly and chased with a bite of orange dipped in salt.

Tacoteca, which is a partnership between Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman and Eastside restaurateur Ricardo Diaz (Guisados, Cook’s Tortas, Colonia Taco Lounge), aspires to replicate the new wave mezcalerias of Oaxaca City. Chapulines (fried crickets) are served as a snack alongside the worm salt and orange slices. Mezcal cocktails are meant to wash down small palates of street corn — a riff on Mexican elote vendors who sell corn on the cob slathered with mayo, cotija cheese, cayenne pepper and lime — and tacos made with house-made tortillas and stuffed with grilled octopus, lamb barbacoa or queso fresco. A duck confit tamal offers a welcome alternative to tacos, while a plate of hamachi caters to those looking for a lighter meal.

The bar at Tacoteca appears modest compared to Scopa, where the bottles are stacked two stories high and 40 feet across, but the focus here is solely on mezcal. Bar manager Gilbert Marquez lists roughly 80 bottles, makingTacoteca the largest mezcal program in the city.

The cocktail list offers riffs on classic cocktails, like a mezcal negroni seasoned with jalapeño brine or the cucumber-ginger mezcal margarita. For the Como La Flor, Marquez infuses Las Javas mezcal infused with juniper, cucumber and rose petals to mimic the floral notes of Hendrick’s gin. The infusion is then stirred with Dolin Blanc and cardamom bitters and served up with a twist. The cardamom finish is overpowering, but the overall effect is that of a gin martini.

Tacoteca recently launched Mezcal Mondays, a happy hour series with discounted tasting flights, and the regular daily happy hour menu offers mezcal cocktails and combos. Both present a good excuse to save money, because you’ll need it for your Uber ride home.

Gillian Ferguson is supervising producer for KCRW’s “Good Food” program and blogs about Southern California produce and farmers markets for Los Angeles Magazine.

Scopa Italian Roots, 2905 W. Washington Blvd., Venice (310) 821-1100 scopaitalianroots.com

Tacoteca 2460 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica (310) 828-2115 tacoteca.com

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