Take Cinco

Take CincoTake Cinco

I f you ring up a Latin restaurant over the phone and find that English is a bit of a struggle and your rudimentary Spanish can’t keep up, odds are good you’ve found a place with roots.

At Mezcal, the waitstaff talks and jokes with itself in Spanish and switches to English for you. Almost everyone who works there is Mexican. Joshua Flores-Vitti, the bartender the night I was there, is the odd one out. He’s half-Italian.

Mezcal is haunted by the benevolent spirits of Mexico. Candlelight flickers on each table after dark, spicy aromas hang in the air, thin cut papel picado banners float overhead and the skeleton of an ancient mariachi hangs on the wall. There may even be mariachi music coming over the loudspeakers, but it’s hard to tell over the chatter of a weekend evening rush. Livened up by tequila or tamales—probably tequila—everyone is buried in conversation.

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What might they drink in the much-sensationalized land south of the border? Devil’s blood? Worm silk or scorpion poison? Firewater from the barrel of a gun? At Mezcal, none of those is a far cry from the truth.

At the bar there are two AK-47s. One red, one blue. One filled with gold tequila, the other with silver. And if it’s your birthday, you can have one of the servers come to your table armed with one of those 3-foot bottles, unloading shot after shot.

If you survive the firing squad, another volley awaits behind the bar. Ask Flores-Vitti for a shot of “Dos Gusanos” and he’ll whip out a bottle of traditional Oaxacan mezcal, made from the heart of the maguey plant, a type of agave native to Mexico. It’s unclear why, but tradition dictates that into every finished bottle of Oaxacan mezcal is dropped a baby gusano: a moth larva that’s sometimes found living inside the agave plant. At Mezcal, floating at the bottom of a bottle of Dos Gusanos, you’ll find the famous two-inch worm. “If you’re lucky you get to eat it,” says Flores-Vitti.

After all that, you might wonder about the shirts worn by the waitstaff. At the bottom they read: “Worms are for wimps.” And on top: “I ate the scorpion.” If this seems like a challenge, that’s because it is. For the brave, Flores-Vitti will bring out another bottle, with a small scorpion resting at the bottom. “Smoky,” he says. “He’s very smoky.”

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If you think you’d have to be mad to try these drinks, consider that today, on Cinco de Mayo, Mezcal is a madhouse. Or so I’m told, anyway. When asked if it’ll be busy, Hugo Galicia, a longtime waiter at Mezcal, gives a weary look: “All day.”

The regular crowd Mezcal draws seems to be mostly East Rockers living around the northern end of State Street. But the recipes have all come from the south. Way south. The food is authentic-feeling and big-portioned. Not cheap, but not unreasonable. The shrimp in the Enchiladas de Camarón ($16.99) are fiercely flavorful, and the Tostadas de Tinga ($13.99)—shredded chicken on crispy tortillas—comes highly recommended.

One thing heat-seeking diners have learned to worry about is restaurants that cater too much to the lower spice tolerances of the average American customer. If you want to ensure some hotness at Mezcal, ask for the diabla on the side, which comes at no extra charge. It’s the restaurant’s “she-devil” sauce, cool and sweet in low dosage but heated and feisty in high, giving you a lot of control. And if the diabla’s not hot enough, you can always ask for her husband, the Diablo ($10). It’s not a sauce but a cocktail, a large serving of mezcal, agave syrup, fresh lime, salsa Valentina and house-made sangrita, a spicy tomato and citrus blend. You might want to order it with a glass of water on the side.

If you’ve survived the AK-47s, the worm, the scorpion and the devil’s brew, you’ll probably drink just about anything at this point, even tequila from a shoe. At Mezcal, they have that too: the bar keeps a bottle of “Medio Tiempo” tequila in the shape of a soccer cleat.

You’ll have to tell us how that one is. We didn’t make it past the Diablo.

Mezcal
14 Mechanic St, New Haven (map)
Mon 5-9:30pm, Tues-Thurs 11:30am-9:30pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-10pm, Sun 11:30am-9pm
(203) 782-4828
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Written by Daniel Shkolnik. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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