Calavera Stars Mezcal, Bugs, and More

The latest from Chris Pastena with partners Michael Iglesias and Jessica Sackler plus chef Christian Irabien is a symphony of Mexican styles.


Tacos at Calavera.

Photos by Lori Eanes

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At some point while you’re discussing what to order for your first dinner at Calavera, the conversation will turn to mezcal and bugs. At least that’s what you’ll be thinking you are talking about, if you can hear yourself think. You and your dining companion(s) will raise your voices, you’ll lean forward and talk louder than is comfortable, and later, you might even leave with your ears ringing.

But that’s the only downside to a meal at Calavera, depending, of course, on how you feel about edible insects.

Here is a listing of the upside: ceviche costeño, tacos cochinita pibil, birria de chivo, fideos en caldo de frijol y chorizo verde, pescado asado al mojo de ajo negro, tamal verde estilo Michoacan, arroz con leche, and masa for tortillas and tamales made in house from heirloom nixtamal corn. And there’s the service that both informs you and makes you happy, and a décor that makes you smile by tweaking today’s trendy post-industrial interior design clichés with whimsical ceramics, historical photos, calavera (skull) iconography, Day of the Dead altars, and birdcage-like lamp enclosures hanging from the high ceiling. There’s a heated side patio, where it’s much quieter.

PHOTO BY lori eanes

Calavera feels part folk art museum, a great mood to set for ceviche.

And that’s not the half of it. Much of the other half is made up of mezcal or, more precisely, agave spirits, which include tequila. Said spirits fill page after page of the wine and agave list binder, and bottle after bottle on the beautiful, asymmetrical, box shelving behind the beckoning bar.

Calavera, which opened in The Hive complex in Uptown in August, is the project of Chris Pastena (Chop Bar and Lungomare) and partners/managers Michael Iglesias (he commandeers the spirits) and Jessica Sackler (she wrangles the wines).

Chef Christian Irabien, born and raised in Chihuahua, Mexico, and seasoned at José Andrés’ Oyamel Cocina Mexicana in Washington, D.C., oversees the fare. He taps the traditions of several Mexican states (including Oaxaca, the capital of mezcal production), uses seasonal and house-prepared ingredients, applies sophisticated techniques, and further expands our understanding of the variety and depth of Mexican cuisine.

During one afternoon lunch and an evening dinner, Robin and I hardly dented the many sections of the wide-ranging menu, and on a solo revisit, I managed to sample just one more cocktail and a main dish (plato fuerte). But what we ate and drank gave us plenty of reasons to rave about Calavera. A crucial question we ask ourselves is, what would we come back for?

Top of Robin’s list was the aforementioned fideos, a classic noodle soup, in this case with heirloom black bean broth, vermicelli, green chorizo, queso fresco, and the less common meco chipotle chile. Our order was delivered in two bowls, each generous enough to have passed for an entire serving. Robin liked her veggie taco well enough (summer squash, white corn, queso fresco, epazote crema), but a taste of my cochinita pibil—pork (baby pig), Mayan axiote rub, sour orange marinade, and xni pec (“dog nose”) salsa— convinced her to order her own on the next visit.

My list is long, but it definitely includes the birria—chile-chocolate-braised goat in roasted tomato broth with pickled chayote. It’s regularly offered as an entrée, but when I found it available as a special taco during our dinner, I jumped at the opportunity and was ecstatic that I had.

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