The vibrant flavors of Mexico City are making their way into your cocktail glass.
At San Agus Cocina Urbana & Cocktails, beverage director Eusebio Pozos has created the Central de Abastos: a cocktail named after Mexico City's largest market, where vendors sell vegetables, herbs, bread and elote — the iconic Mexican street corn snack. The drink's connection to the market reaches beyond its name, with flavors from Mexican herbs and liqueurs intended to transport you to the aisles of the market. In fact, San Agus' entire cocktail menu is composed of drinks designed to take you to Mexico City: There's the La Merced, named after another one of Mexico City's markets, and the Xochimilco, which is inspired by a city borough.
Notably absent from the cocktail menu, though, is Mexico's most significant contribution to the canon of cocktails: the margarita.
"It's really hard having craft cocktails at a Hispanic restaurant," Pozos said. "In most people's heads, the only thing they picture are margaritas."
Armed with a desire to nudge his customers off the beaten path, San Agus has deliberately omitted the classic cocktail from the menu to make room for the diversity of Mexico's flavors.
"If I put a margarita on the menu, 60% of the cocktails I'm gonna sell are gonna be margaritas," Pozos explained.
Pozos wants San Agus' customers to transcend the margarita and explore a much wider range of Mexican spirits through a well-curated bar menu that features everything from celebrated classics to newer, obscure imports. Take destilado de pulque for example: Distilled from the traditional Aztec fermented agave drink pulque, this higher-proof version is difficult to find in the United States, and San Agus carries a version made by Juerte, the first company to import it here. Pozos' home state of Tlaxcala, a few hours outside of Mexico City, is especially renowned for its pulque, and Pozos remembers how it's all his father would drink during his childhood. "That (pulque) was the replacement for water," he said with a chuckle as he described the drink's ubiquity. "They would drink it and keep working in the farm."
While most of his customers are unfamiliar with pulque, Pozos says that many of them have been excited by some of the other spirits on offer.
"I was surprised that Palo Alto was so into mezcal," he said, while noting that even the most knowledgeable of his customers were likely to find something new to taste at San Agus.
In an effort to support independent producers, Pozos sources from smaller mezcaleros that are not widely distributed, such as Tres Tiempos, who produce small batches of mezcal in the state of Oaxaca. San Agus also carries raicilla and bacanora; more specific versions of mezcal that have received official designations as appellations and are protected and regulated by the Mexican government in the same way that many European countries regulate wine. Pozos is fond of the comparison to wine, often telling new mezcal drinkers that the two are more alike than one would think.
"You have a diversity of agave just like you have a diversity of grapes," Pozos said, while going on to explain that, like wine, agave spirits can also express terroir, a sense of place that factors heavily into the spirits he chooses to carry.
San Agus also serves a range of spirits not made from agave. Sotol — a distillate made from the desert spoon shrub, rum distilled from sugarcane grown in the hills of Michoacan and whisky made from heritage Oaxcan corn are all featured on the San Agus spirits list.
In addition to base spirits, San Agus is also exploring Mexican liqueurs that add flavor, texture and complexity to their cocktails. Ancho Reyes, made by infusing neutral cane spirit with ancho chilis from Puebla, adds smokiness and depth to the La Merced cocktail, while Ancho Reyes Verde, made with fresh poblano chilis, adds more of an herbal and spicy kick to the Tepito.
Since Mexican twists on classic cocktails can often feature spiciness, Pozos is keen to expand that narrow view of the country's influence on cocktails by incorporating liqueurs made with Mexico's vast varieties of herbs and edible flowers, like D'Aristi Xtabentun liqueur. Produced from the fermented honey of bees that pollinate the xtabentun flower in Yucatan state, Pozos uses the liqueur's honeyed notes of anise to round out the intense herbal flavor of house-made epazote syrup in the Central de Abasto cocktail. To balance the sweetness and earthiness of maple-tobacco syrup in the Bellas Artes, Pozos uses Granada-Vallet, a Mexican take on classic bitter Italian liqueurs, made with pomegranate and colored a bright red with natural cochineal dye from Oaxaca.
The most un-Mexican part of San Agus' beverage menu is its wine selection, which features selections from Argentina, California, France, Italy and Spain but not Mexico.
"It's getting bigger and bigger," Pozos said of the wine-producing culture in Mexico.
But after importation and distribution, these small batch wines can end up costing as much as $24 to sell by the glass, and Pozos has to balance his desire to highlight these Mexican wines against the biases of some customers who simply aren't willing to pay that much for wine from a region they have never tried. Pozos remains hopeful that San Agus will serve Mexican wine one day based on the response from wine enthusiasts to Mexican producers on the menu at San Agus' sister restaurant, La Viga in Redwood City.
As winter approaches, Pozos is beginning recipe development for the next iteration of San Agus' cocktail menu, which will be the restaurant's third since it opened in May. Pozos takes a seasonal approach to San Agus' cocktails, incorporating local produce that he feels might work well with Mexican flavors.
As the mercury drops, he says he'll trade the fall flavors of persimmon-infused gin for a warming mezcal-based ponche, a traditional hot Christmastime Mexican punch sweetened with piloncillo, an unrefined Mexican cane sugar, and spiced with cinnamon. For more adventurous drinkers, Pozos will include a mezcal cocktail infused with huitlacoche, an edible fungus that grows on corn, often harvested as a culinary delicacy.
"The cocktail looks a little scary," Pozos said with a chuckle, owing to its color and cloudiness, but nevertheless, he remains confident that San Agus patrons will enjoy it as much as he does.
San Agus is located at 115 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto; 650-847-1334; sanagus.com. Under the current public health order, San Agus is still open for takeout and delivery.
This article was originally published Dec. 4 on TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.