Food & Drink

Tastes of Mexico

Special dinners at El Camino seek to educate and entertain

By Katie Colvin September 27, 2023

Special dinners pack the house at El Camino.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Illuminated beneath the glow of Fremont’s famous rocket, two dozen Seattleites gather at El Camino restaurant to enjoy a specially curated meal featuring authentic Mexican dishes paired with three pours of Wahaka Mezcal.

The enclosed patio is strewn with colorful punched banners and paper lanterns. Light dances above tables set with flickering votives, bowls of jicama, imported fried crickets, and spiced peanuts.

This isn’t a normal evening at El Camino, a 27-year-old restaurant that fronts North 35th Street in one of Seattle’s funkiest neighborhoods. Co-owners Paige Crandall and Rob Coburn host periodic dinners featuring distilleries to bring the tradition and stories of Mexico to Seattle.

“We are not just a business,” says Crandall, who met Coburn, a regular customer, while working at the restaurant as a server. “It’s the layers of culture, experience, and history that create something truly magical here.”

That history is on full display during this pleasant and welcoming evening. The menu, from El Camino’s head chef, Arturo Perez, features ingredients from his home region of Michoacán, just north of Mexico City.

While we sip blackberry, basil, and lime cocktails featuring Wahaka Espadin Mezcal, Eduardo Belaunzaran, managing partner of Oaxaca-based Wahaka Mezcal, welcomes the group warmly. The small distillery in the rural municipality of San Dionisio Ocotepec, in south-western Mexico, produces only 50,000 liters of mezcal a year. Ninety-five percent head north to the United States. The other 5% is shipped to Panama, Japan, and Australia.

Belaunzaran’s voice and passion for mezcal quickly transport us to Mexico, where the art of mezcal has been practiced and perfected by the indigenous Zapotec people for generations. Mezcal is a distilled beverage made from the heart of any agave plant that is mashed to a pulp. It is then placed in earthen pits to cook for up to five days. In contrast, tequila is a mezcal made only from the blue agave, one of roughly 30 varieties native to Mexico. More than 70% of mezcal is made in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

As we dive deeper into the history and culture surrounding agave, mezcal, and tequila, the first course of Chicharon de Pan de Muerto is served. Pork belly is fried to a crisp and served with a mezcal-infused mole negro. A toasted Mexican brioche bun nestles atop the mole and the dish is liberally sprinkled with pickled onions and sesame seeds.

Belaunzaran has chosen Mezcal Wahaka Tepeztate to accompany the textures and smokiness of the mole. It is triple-distilled and leads with an earthy, pungent fragrance. The first sip is pleasantly fruity and then turns surprisingly spicy.

“The art of mezcal extends back centuries to the first Spanish in Mexico,” Belaunzaran says. As such, Alberto Morales, owner of Wahaka Mezcal, and his team rely on the same basic tools used by their ancestors such as axes, pitchforks, and clay heated by wood-fired ovens.

Ensalada Mango Verde — crisp organic mixed greens, fresh green mango, radish, and onion tossed with a mango lime vinaigrette — arrives next. Belaunzaran pours generous samples of Mezcal Wahaka Tabala.

Mezcal Tabala is made from a wild plant that grows in the highlands, often on rugged mountainsides and rocky cliffs. It has a rich, robust mouth feel and pairs beautifully with the cool textures of the salad.

The third pour is Mezcal Wahaka Manzanita, a limited release “pechuga” made with organic heirloom apples and placed in a copper still for the second distillation. It is so fragrant that the scent of roasting apples subtly fills the room. The third course, Trompito al Pastor, is a skewered and grilled marinated pork butt, generous servings of Mexican onion and fresh pineapple, warm homemade blue corn tortillas, guacamole, and salsa puya.

As the evening winds down, Mousse de Limon is offered in cocktail glasses adorned with raw sugar and pomegranate seeds.

Bistec Al Estilo Capitalino is an authentic flavor of southern Mexico.

Photo courtesy of El Camino

 

The food and drink are fantastic, but they’re as much about education as taste. Belaunzaran notes that mezcal’s recent popularity poses a risk to the people, communities, and habitats where agave is grown and harvested.

Agave can take 20 to 30 years to grow to maturity. Overharvesting has become a challenge as supply struggles to keep up with growing demand. Wahaka Mezcal is addressing this concern through a dedication to organic harvesting, supporting youth and families in their local community, and larger environmental efforts.

Each year, the company hosts a Reforestation Journey to replant agave. Last April, 60 volunteers from multiple countries worked side-by-side with skilled locals in the restoration effort. “It will be at least 12 to 15 years before these new plants are ready to harvest,” Belaunzaran notes. “These efforts are vital to the sustainability of the families, the culture, and the land of Oaxaca.”

That’s a primary reason why Belaunzaran and company seek to “export” the culture while boosting the Mexican economy. Seattle, given its proximity to Mexico and its unique willingness to embrace cultural diversity, is a huge part of that effort. Next up is a tentative event around Dia de muertos, or Day of the Dead, a holiday widely observed in Mexico traditionally celebrated in late October and early November.

“Restaurants like El Camino have played a pivotal role in helping us bring the tradition and story of authentic mezcal to the states,” he says. “Seattle is one of my favorite places to spread the story and culture. It has been a very welcoming and warm region and was one of the first cities to fully embrace mezcal.”

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