Barrios Fine Mexican Dishes is trying to help educate Oklahomans about the wonders of tequila. Could there be a more noble project? While there is much to say about the high-quality food and gorgeous interior design, one of the most striking components of Barrios is the stunning bar.
If the designations are confusing, you’re not alone. Most people’s experience with tequila comes from bad country music—“Pour me another tequila, Sheila”—or with the party crowd at work: “Oh my God! I was so wasted last night! I did tequila shots!”
(Brief aside: alcohol is metabolized consistently by the body no matter what type you’re drinking. People get drunker because they tend to drink shots of tequila, much like the nascent alcoholic who swears Jameson just affects him differently. Nope. Stop shooting it, and you’ll be fine. End aside.)
I joined Jason Ewald, at the time the Bar & Beverage Director for parent company A Good Egg Dining Group, at Barrios's copper-topped bar. Ewald offered me a half pour of Chinaco, a blanco from Tamaulipas, one of the five Mexican states in which tequila can be made and legally designated tequila. The Chinaco tasted like good gin, really good gin.
“Like Scotch, tequila is a terroir spirit,” Ewald said. Terroir is usually used to describe the region in which wine is grown, but it applies to any wine or spirit that takes part of its character from the soil. “Where it’s grown matters, but unlike Scotch, you’re going to pay as little as one third the price.”
The decision to focus heavily on tequila fit with the Barrios concept, according to Ewald—it’s a Mexican restaurant, after all. Like the intention to make food with authenticity, Barrios wants to offer beverages that are also true to the terroir of the region in which they were created. AGE has invested in staff education, and they have taken the remarkable step of keeping prices lower than their competitors to encourage people to try different tequilas.
“We got the best tequilas we could find with an eye toward quality and value, and then we knocked the price back ten to fifteen percent to increase the value proposition,” Ewald said. “We also offer half pours so guests can try different styles.”
The idea is to sip, not shoot, the tequila, but Ewald and bar manager Jenny Kress know they are working against cultural assumptions. They are helping to offset some of them by working tequila into classic cocktails. One of those is the Cheech & Chong, really an Old Fashioned infused with apple wood smoke and with tequila in place of the rye. While a bit theatrical—it comes in a glass skull—the overall effect is very pleasant, and it tastes delicious.
Kress relates the backstory of another of their drinks that features Damiana, an herbal liqueur from Mexico that on the nose reminds me of a simplified Chartreuse. The bottle is shaped like a modern Venus of Willendorf, an ancient, voluptuous fertility goddess.
“According to Mexican folklore, the Damiana is a bit like liquid Viagra,” Kress said. “It’s also supposed to increase fertility.”
While many will be happy about the first part, that second one might make the single boys consider a different drink. Still, the idea of knowing the stories, respecting the heritage, and presenting the food and beverages in a culturally rich context might help people grab hold of tequila as a beverage to be savored and not slammed. To further that, Ewald has stocked up on some of the best known names in the tequila world, as well as some lesser known products that deserve consideration.
The staff will happily explain the difference between reposado and anejo, or break down the terroir of great tequila like 1 2 3 (Uno Dos Tres) Organic Tequila, Casa Noble and Casa Amigos, and they’ll introduce you to new names like Chinaco and Corzo. Best of all, Ewald has designed flights to help the education, and the half pours are always available.
Barrios graciously shared two tequila cocktail recipes with Territory followers.
Grilled Pineapple Margarita
2 oz Gran Centenario Anejo
1/2 oz Damiana Liqueur
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz agave syrup
3/4 oz grilled pineapple puree
1 grilled pineapple wedge (for garnish)
Combine and shake. Reverse dry shake (this is when you take the ice out and just shake the liquid--or you can just shake really hard) and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish & serve.
Cheech & Chong
2 tapatio anjeo tequila
1 teaspoon of piloncillo syrup
4 or 5 dashes of Winship's Old-Fashioned Bitters
(substitute 3 dashes of angostura and 2 dashes orange bitters if you don’t have kinships)
Smoke vessel and cork. Prepare glass with ice rock, orange peel expression, and cherry on a stick. Pour drink into rocks glass & serve.