Mezcal in Mexico City
Upon moving to Mexico City, my husband and I immediately set out to determine our happy-hour spot, a place to cut through the smog that stuck in the back of our throats and watch the brilliant, dusty sunset.
La Nacional is a casual mezcal bar, not hidden away, cramped, or trendy like some of the more written-about mezcalerias. They’re serious about the stuff: the menu is an intersecting web connecting agave varieties to over 100 mezcals. It’s easier to just tell your waiter what you’d like—something smoky, sweet, or smooth—and have them bring two or three bottles to sniff and approve before pouring.
We take every visitor to one of the outside tables to get a mezcal education and a front-row seat to the orchestra of the city’s street vendors: the clack clack clack of the man knocking metal canisters inside his closed fist to sell you electric shocks; the ghostly recording of a little girl’s voice pleading for pieces to be broken down for scrap metal; the high-pitched whistle of the camote vendor peddling roasted sweet potatoes and plantains.
When our friends Justin and Melanie come to visit, we sample smooth mezcal de pechuga, alternating it with sips of sour orange juice. Pechuga means breast in Spanish, and indeed, the finished liquor undergoes a third distillation underneath a raw, skinless chicken or turkey breast, with seasonal fruits, grains and nuts added to the mix. The vapors that emanate from the spirit cook the breast, and it imparts some of its savory flavor to balance the fruit’s sweetness and mellow the earthiness of the roasted agave. It’s less smoky than some of its counterparts, and tastes nothing like chicken.
We’re savoring our pechugas when we hear the piercing squeal of carbon escaping the metal pipe of the camote cart, like steam from a teapot, and I grab my wallet. “Be right back.”
The camote vendor opens the smoking drawer of his cart that sits above a flame, revealing skinned, melty bananas nestled together with roasted sweet potatoes. Sixty pesos for two potatoes, halved and thickly drizzled with condensed milk. I run back across the street and set our snacks down.
We dig in; the skin gives way to soft flesh. “This is perfectly cooked,” Justin remarks. “It tastes like Thanksgiving,” my husband says, and I nod, remembering my aunt’s marshmallow-topped side dish. The four of us are quiet for a minute, trading kisses of mezcal for bites of sweet potato, thinking of home.
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