With more than 200 selections of Tequila and Mezcal, this D.C. restaurant and bar more than fills guests’ south of the border tall orders. While many consumers have long considered tequila to be merely an interchangeable frozen Margarita base, over the past few years, Mexico’s national spirit has finally started to garner the respect it deserves as a serious, sip-worthy category whose nuances and dimensions vary according to style, producer and ageing method.
At El Centro, D.F, the new Washington, D.C. hotspot opened by acclaimed international chef Richard Sandoval, the extensive tequila and mezcal menu reads like a wine list—categorically divided, with descriptions of flavor profiles, flight options and pairing advice— and agave is king. The bar’s name stands for “Distrito Federal,” a reference to Mexico City’s location as the capital of Mexico.
The 260-seat spot is split into three sections, each inspired by a different dining experience in Mexico City. Guests can have a quick bite at the ground floor Taqueria, or enjoy a cold Dos Equis at the rooftop bar. But it’s the lower level Tequilera that is most impressive, with its impressive tequila and mezcal selection, priced $8 to $150 per one-and-a-half-ounce pour, including small-production and Sotol options. (The latter is crafted from an agave relative; each plant takes fifteen years to mature and produces just a single bottle of the sought-after spirit).
Making Sense of the Sea of Tequila
Admittedly, all of these available options can be a bit overwhelming, especially for newbies. “Tequila for the uninitiated can be pretty confusing,” admits beverage director Brennan Adams. “Education is very important. Tequilas are tasted much like wines, and the only way to know is to go around the list.” He suggests patrons lick their intimidation by starting with unaged blanco styles, whose clean profiles give insight to its transformation when it’s aged. For guests who are reluctant to try tequila, Adams recommends easy-to-enjoy pours of reposado. “They are generally softer and the casking allows for coverage of flaws in the product.”
To help guide patrons in their exploration, El Centro also employs tequila sommelier Danielle Griffin, the seventh person in the world to receive an “Award T” certification from the Tequila Regulatory Council. “She has an incredible amount of tequila knowledge and communicates to the guest in clear and approachable language,” muses Adams. Griffin also created the menu, peppered with helpful descriptions for each bottle: Gran Centenario Blanco ($11) has a peppery nose, with herbs and licorice; Azul Centenario Reposado ($9) is floral and woody, with apple and banana.
The menu also highlights flight options served in conical glass votives. A vertical tasting ($25) demonstrates the effect of ageing; and the horizontal tasting, priced at $18 for Blanco, $25 for Reposado and $32 for Añejo; lets guests select any three tequilas from different distilling families to compare and contrast ageing techniques.
Mezcal lovers are often hard pressed to find even one bottle of the smoky spirit behind the bar (and no, it shouldn’t have a worm). However El Centro offers 32, priced from $8 to $40, including unaged, aged and single-estate bottles, all with aromas and flavors that run well beyond that of a campfire. “Mezcals are highly distinctive by distiller and hit all over the sensory spectrum,” says Adams, including minerality, citrus and pepper.
Cocktails Shake it Up
Though the menu’s depth and breadth certainly encourages sipping neat, Adams also merges classic and modern techniques, and traditional herbs and botanicals, to craft Mexican-inspired drinks, priced from $7 to $20. St. Germain and lavender simple syrup are a heady addition to the traditional Margarita ($10); the Michelada Tochino ($8) puts a savory twist on the ubiquitous Mexican beer cocktail by garnishing it with house-smoked bacon and Chipotle salt.
Mexican cervezas and South American wines also partner with the authentic dishes, but Griffin and the rest of the staff are just as willing to suggest tequila pairings. Adams likes how Don Julio Resposado ($12) rounds out the sweetness of the grilled pineapple in the Pork Belly Al Pastor Tacos ($10.95); the richness of tableside prepared Guacamole ($9.95) is foiled by the delicate, clean flavor of Ambhar Blanco ($11).
And don’t rule out agave with dessert: complex Jose Cuervo La Familia Extra Añejo ($22) is perfect with rich Tres Leches Cake ($5,) a pairing that sums up Adams’—and the restaurant’s—philosophy of this Latin American journey to liquid nirvana: “Dive in, don’t be afraid, you don’t know until you try.”