Comedian Jim Gaffigan claims that Mexican restaurants seem to take the same combination of ingredients and repackage them under different names. Tortillas, cheese, meat and vegetables, he says, combine to form nachos, tacos, burritos, chimichangas and more. At many so-called Mexican restaurants, this is sadly true, giving Mexican food an undeserved reputation as slop to soak up fluorescent margaritas made from syrupy bottled mixes.
The Bebedero, which opened in March next to Paradox Pastry downtown, aims to break this mold. In the kitchen are Cesar Gazpar-Perez, of Puebla, Mexico, and his fiancée, Yuliana Perez-Vasquez, of Veracruz, and the cuisine draws on both heritages. “We are making recipes that come from our homes,” says Perez-Vasquez. “The Bebedero is actually a restaurant similar to ones you will find in Mexico.”
Having made only three trips to Mexico, I sought the help of a more experienced palate to test Perez-Vasquez’s claim. Maria Gracia was born in Mexico, grew up on her parents’ Mexican cooking and helped them run the much-missed restaurant El Tepeyac, which closed last year.
Before turning to the food, though, the setting warrants a mention. It’s spectacular. With two-story ceilings, breezy fans, lively colors and pulsing salsa music, the ambience whets the appetite as much as any amuse bouche. That’s no wonder given the trio joining Gazpar-Perez and Perez-Vasquez as partners: Will Richey, who has owned The Alley Light, Revolutionary Soup, The Pie Chest and The Whiskey Jar, where Gazpar-Perez was once sous chef, Josh Zanoff and bar manager River Hawkins, who painted the gorgeous mural on the main wall, and is committed to the true flavors of Mexico behind the bar, with freshly made margaritas and a wide selection of artisan mezcal and tequilas.
As for the food, important details appear from the start. “The chips are housemade,” observes Gracia. “And so are the tortillas.” A Northwestern University graduate with a career in business, Gracia has a way of assessing dishes that is so efficient I may adopt it. “I’d order this again,” she says.
And, it was true of almost everything we ate. Pork tamales gain an unusually light texture from being steamed slowly for more than an hour in grilled banana leaves, an Oaxacan alternative to corn husks. For tacos of cochinita pibil, handmade tortillas encase pork shoulder that was first marinated for 12 hours in a traditional mixture of orange juice, dried chiles and spices before a slow, six-hour braise. Delicate empanadas oozing melted mozzarella cheese ramped Gracia’s praise even higher. “I really like this one,” she says, stressing “really” while widening her eyes. “Addictive.”
The hits continue throughout our meal, and what seems to make Gracia happiest is finding food that reminds her of home. “Mexican cuisine is more complex and robust than what is usually offered in Mexican restaurants in the U.S.,” she says. But, at The Bebedero, there are dishes like home-style ceviche and cocktail de camaron. For the latter, poached shrimp, julienned jicama and avocado swim in a sauce of tomato, lime juice, orange juice, three different chili powders and ketchup, an authentic addition for sweetness. Gracia admits to being very picky about this classic dish, and she was apprehensive to try it. Fortunately, she loves it. “I’m so excited I can finally get this in town!” she says.
Margaritas can sometimes be off the mark, too, says Gracia, who decided a simple one was the best test for the bar. The Margarita Pura is just Lunazul reposado tequila, lime juice and agave syrup. Another hit. “Delicious and refreshing,” says Gracia.
Also delicious is a dish from Gazpar-Perez’s home region, pork chop en pipian verde: grilled pork chops smothered in spiced green mole that’s thickened with ground pumpkin seeds. “I grew up eating this with my grandparents,” says Gazpar-Perez. (Lucky guy.) “Perfectly balanced,” says Gracia.
But it was Del Mar Stew, a dish from Perez-Vasquez’s hometown, that Gracia and I agreed was the highlight of the night. Mussels, white fish, scallops and head-on shrimp are bathed in a beautiful broth with a rich fish stock base not unlike that of a bouillabaisse. It is the same recipe Perez-Vasquez’s mother and grandmother would make during her childhood at family gatherings along the river, with fish caught by her father. “Just one bite of this dish takes me back home,” says Perez-Vasquez.
We were too full for dessert, so I missed my favorite dish at The Bebedero. Chocoflan is a famously difficult Mexican dessert combining flan and chocolate cake which, Perez-Vasquez says, is so tricky it “can get ruined in minutes.” But, when it’s done well, it’s stunning. And Perez-Vasquez does it very well. Her key, she says, is melted chocolate instead of cocoa powder in the cake batter.
Though I typically prefer savory to sweet, I’ve been to The Bebedero just for this dish (okay, and a margarita). “Now it’s time to enjoy life a little bit,” said the server when I did. Actually, it was time to enjoy life a lot.
Feb. 23, 2016: The Whiskey Jar gears up for new Mexican Restaurant