Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Watch: This Is How Small-Production Mezcal Is Made

I was in a van with an experienced crew, including Ava Gene's chef-owner, Joshua McFadden, and the CEO of Modern Adventure, Luis Vargas. The dirt road stretching through the arid Mexican landscape was so bumpy I was spilling mezcal everywhere. But it was in a bowl-shaped gourd: The mission was impossible by design.

Modern Adventure is a newly minted luxury tour company that racked up $1M in investments last fall, and I'd recently met Luis at a party Modern Adventure hosted in Portland in December. I was impressed with the quality of the tour offerings, and it was just good luck I happened to be in Oaxaca a few weeks later, when they were rolling through.

We spent the day touring Lalocura Mescalaria, a mezcal distillery in Santa Catarina Minas, near Oaxaca, Mexico. The owner, Eduardo Ángeles, took us into the fields to see the mezcal harvest and revealed the diversity of small-production mezcal, something I'd never experienced in the U.S. They weren't all smoky! And the best ones demonstrated the inherent flavors of the different agave varieties used to make them.

Step into Eduardo's world in the video below. Watch the visually mesmerizing agave harvest, and learn why you have to visit Oaxaca to taste the real deal. And a huge thank you to Modern Adventure for letting me tag along, and to Luis for serving as an impromptu translator.

A Real-Deal Mezcal Tour: From Agave Harvest to Heroic Sampling

The One Good Thing Trump Did for PDX Food

On the eve of Donald Trump's first State of the Union Address, there is one thing Portland eaters can actually be thankful for: the reversal of the law that made it illegal to pool tips at restaurants. In 2011, then-president Barack Obama made it illegal for restaurants to share tips among staff — waiters, cooks, hosts, dishwashers, etc. Many restaurateurs I've spoke to say this furthers the wage disparity between front-of-house and back-of-house restaurant workers: Waiters usually pocket all that dough from 20% tips, in addition to earning minimum wage, while line cooks often make around minimum wage.

The Trump Administration's Department of Labor has set a repeal in motion that will likely take effect February 5, 2018. This would allow restaurant owners to divide the total tips among staff as they please. The government is accepting comments from the public until that date.

Pooling tips and dividing them more evenly among restaurant workers does appear to fix, or lessen, many problems Portland restaurants are currently facing. In particular, Portland restaurants need to find a way to pay their staff more, as a result of rising minimum wage mandates in Oregon. Secondly, the shortage of cooks once mostly felt by New York City and San Francisco is now a reality in Portland.

Photo: Mattie John Bamman

Tip pooling could allow restaurant owners to pay their cooks more. This would reduce turnover in the kitchen, which majorly affects the quality of the food we're all served. Additionally, the hospitality industry employs a huge percentage of Portlanders, so reversing the law would improve the quality of life for thousands.

But there is one potential problem — one of the very reasons Obama made tip-pooling illegal in 2011: Some restaurant owners could choose to pocket all of the tips, and that would be totally legal.

For me, the real problem — the one at the root of all of this — is that waiters are paid minimum wage in addition to earning tips in Oregon. In other states, waiters make a tiny portion of minimum wage — at times, as low as $2.33/hour — with the tips making up the rest of their pay (note that if a waiter's tips do not equal minimum wage, which is uncommon, the employer must pay the difference.)

Because of Oregon's laws, restaurateurs have to dedicate more of their total operating fees to pay waiters, some of whom are already making bank with tips. It only seems fair cooks receive higher pay.

Monday, January 29, 2018

How to Book a Real-Deal Mezcal Tour in Oaxaca

The best mezcal tours always take you into the small villages around Oaxaca, where small producers make mezcal according to tradition. But there's something equally important to consider when booking a mezcal tour: Some mezcal distilleries in Oaxaca are the foundation of their entire village's economy, while others are owned by out-of-state or international investors, cashing in on the current mezcal trend.

Make sure to support Oaxaca's local citizens by knowing the difference and finding a locally minded tour company.

Unless you speak fluent Spanish and are willing to invest hours of research, the best way to tour Oaxaca's mescal distilleries is to hire an experienced guide. If there were a better DIY way to do this, I would definitely recommend it, but the expertise of these tour operators cannot be underestimated: They are already familiar with the best small-scale mezcal distilleries; they will arrange all of the tour appointments (many mezcal distilleries do not maintain regular hours); they'll translate so you can connect with the distillers; and finally, they will help you avoid mezcal distilleries owned by out-of-state and international investors.
Agave harvest worker at Lalocura Mescalaria [Photo: Mattie John Bamman]

Here are the mezcal tour operators I recommend in Oaxaca, Mexico:

There are many other mezcal tour operators out there, but these are the ones I trust. Know of another excellent mezcal tour company? Give it a shoutout in the comments or shoot me an email to get it on the list.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Best Things I Just Ate In Oaxaca, Mexico

The Oaxacan food scene is getting a ton of attention right now — both from chefs and culinary travel writers — and here are the best things I tried during my three week trip in January 2018. 

I started in Puerto Escondido, a tropical beach town on Mexico's southern Pacific coast in the state of Oaxaca, and ended in Oaxaca City. This list of the top street foods and fine-dining dishes focuses on those two destinations.

After 10 years as a culinary travel writer, I don't shy away from food. During the trip, I tried crunchy, lime-seasoned worms and bustling taco stands serving meat carved straight from animal heads. I also ponied up to fine-dining restaurants to sample some modern Oaxacan plates, like those at Los Danzantes, recently highlighted by one of my favorite authors, Francine Prose.

Note this list is in a completely random order (not ranked).

1. Hamburguesa, Street Vendors, Oaxaca City ($1.50 each)

Photo by Mattie John Bamman

These are not typical hamburgers: Oaxaca City street vendors serve thin burger patties loaded with bologna, American cheese, Oaxacan string cheese (quesillo), salsa, diced pineapple, lettuce, and tomato (and the best come on a potato bun).

Based on a recommendation from Ava Gene's chef-owner Joshua McFadden, I skipped the ketchup but added mayo and mustard. The mustard and tangy string cheese balanced the pineapple.

2. Hierba Santa, Los Danzantes Restaurant, Oaxaca City ($4.50)

Photo by Mattie John Bamman

Native to Mesoamerica, hierba santa is an anis-y leaf, and while the flavor can be powerful, fine-dining restaurant Los Danzantes shows a light touch: A single long leaf is stuffed with Oaxacan string cheese and queso de cabra, served in a creamy and tangy tomatillo-based sauce.

3. Roasted Hearts of Agave Piñas, Santa Catarina Minas (45 minutes outside Oaxaca City), (Pricele$$)

Photo by Mattie John Bamman

Part of making mezcal is roasting the agave piñas — the hearts of the agave plant — in a giant pit for around five days. Afterward, the charred hunks look like burned pineapples, and the centers — revealed with a deft machete thwack — are caramelized and juicy, almost jammy. The owner of Lalocora Mezcal, Eduardo Angeles, told me it's considered a super food, especially by the workers of the agave harvest.

4. Hot Chocolate, Boulenc Bakery, Oaxaca City ($1.50)

Photo by Mattie John Bamman

I'll never forget stumbling upon bubbling cauldrons of hot chocolate at the Tlacolula Sunday Market in Oaxaca in 2004. Despite the warm weather, hot chocolate is Oaxaca's drink, and it's best made with water — not milk — to let the raw flavors of the chocolate shine. Boulenc probably had the best of this trip, but you can order it anywhere.

5. Chilaquiles Rojo, Tres Girasoles (inside Puerto Escondido Mercado) ($2.50)

Photo by Mattie John Bamman

Tropical beach paradise Puerto Escondido is all about maxing and relaxing, with a lot more freshly cracked coconuts and boozy drinks than great food. But in the town's heart is its Mercado, located far from the beach, with locals filling up the copious food stalls. My chilaquiles rojo included thick, freshly fried tortilla triangles topped with a surprisingly rich red sauce, as well as avocado, onion, cilantro, queso blanco, and perfectly crispy fried eggs.

6. Croissants, Boulenc Bakery, Oaxaca City ($1.50)

Photo by Mattie John Bamman

No joke: I can say Boulenc makes the best croissants I've ever had. This entire list could be filled with its other breakfast plates, too. Best food of the trip, outside of our cooking class.

7. Chile Rellenos, Santa Fe Restaurant, Puerto Escondido ($5)

Photo by Mattie John Bamman

This hulking plate of chile rellenos — roasted poblano peppers stuffed with cheese and served beneath tomato sauce —destroys all prior experiences: A deep, nourishing tomato sauce over meaty peppers gooing cheese. This restaurant was definitely the best in Puerto Escondido — by a long shot.

8. Tortas, Unknown Convenience Store in Unknown Town, Oaxaca ($1.50)

Photo by Mattie John Bamman

The telera bread I tasted in Mexico was markedly different than the stuff I've had in the U.S.: thin and crispy (and sometimes seemed to be grilled like panini), not fluffy. The crunch is where it's at — and the best one I had was at a convenience store in some town our bus stopped at between Puerto Escondido and Oaxaca City. It's a testament to the fact you should never shy away from an opportunity to try something new.

The torta came spread with black beans and stuffed with chicken, cheese, avocado, and a hulking wedge of pickled jalapeno [photo above is of a similar but different torta from the trip]. Tortas are definitely a great gateway street food for those trying new Mexican dishes.

9. Amarillo Mole, Casa della Abuela Restaurant, Oaxaca City ($10)

Photo by Mattie John Bamman

Famous for its chocolate, Oaxaca makes around seven varieties of mole, but this one is chocolate-free. The amarillo mole [top left in photo above] was light, creamy, and a little spicy, and the power came from a special blend of dried chiles (they seem to be guajillo chilieschilhuacle amarillo chiles, and additional dried chiles). This was my favorite mole of the trip (again, aside from our cooking class).

10. Fresh-Squeezed Tropical Fruit Juices, Puerto Escondido (but found throughout Oaxaca), ($2)
Photo by Mattie John Bamman
Growing up off the grid in Maine, tropical fruits were a pricy delicacy, but they're ubiquitous and mindbogglingly cheap in Central America. During my trip, I watched entire pineapples liquified before my very eyes for a dollar. The street-side stand at Bungalows Puerta del Sol on Puerto Escondido's main drag had the most interesting fruit combinations — if priced for tourists. Papaya, guava, passion fruit, star fruit, mango, banana, pineapple, and much more.

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