You can have the best food in the world, but if the service is not perfect, no one will come back.
Here it is not just family-owned, it is family-operated, right down to Adolfo Gomez himself greeting you at the door.
Walk into 25 West San Fernando St. and the man seating you may be Adolfo Gomez, owner and manager of Mezcal. This is not your ordinary Mexican restaurant, it is a culinary treat straight from Oaxaca, Mexico. “If you look around San Jose,” Gomez says, “you will see a lot of Mexican restaurants and little taquerias, but they are mostly serving northern Mexican cuisine. Here, we do not have burritos on the menu.”
What they do have are rich moles made with fragrant spices, guacamole sliced, diced, and served table side, and of course chapulines, crispy grasshoppers sautéed with garlic, lime and salt. Not your ordinary menu, but that’s just the way Gomez likes it. “People come in and they ask, ‘Do you have chimichangas?’ No. ‘Do you have burritos?’ No,” he says with a laugh. “They ask me what’s good here, and I tell them ‘everything.’”
When it’s your mother and brother in the kitchen cooking up recipes passed down over generations, the assessment rings true. Gomez knows these dishes because they are the same as when he was a child. “I ask people to think of all the meals their mothers made over the years. Can they pick only five favorites?” he asks. “We started with 125 of my mother’s recipes—foods I ate growing up as a boy. We chose 25 dishes.”
Oaxacan cuisine is known for its freshness and quality ingredients. The moles are slow-cooked, and everything is made from scratch. Gomez’s brother Octavio is chef, but his mother, Doña Libo, is Mezcal’s heart. It is her recipes, perfected over generations, that give the restaurant its spirit and spice. Mezcal it is not just family-owned, it is family-operated, right down to Gomez himself greeting you at the door.
“I tell my staff that service is number one, because you can have the best food in the world, but if the service is not perfect, no one will come back,” Gomez says.
The atmosphere also plays a large role in what takes this restaurant into the extraordinary. Throughout the space there are pieces from famous Oaxacan artisans. The warm, brick walls and lighting glow with rich color. Traditional Alebrije figurines, brightly-painted carved wooden animals, nest in alcoves. Tin lanterns hang from the ceiling, revealing images from Frida Kahlo’s “Las Dos Fridas” and katrinas with their skeleton grins hanging from the walls. It is this attention to detail that perfects Gomez’s creation. Gomez recalls that, after five years of hard work, Mezcal was set to open—and then the 2008 recession hit. Having chosen a location to catch crowds flocking to the Convention Center, the brothers thought Mezcal was doomed to shutter its doors before they even opened. “We were lucky,” he says. “Family and friends came through. They helped with loans. We didn’t want to wonder what could have happened.”
In 2008, Mezcal opened. Metro Newspaper named it Best New Restaurant in 2009. After four years, it is still going strong. While other establishments change hands and close doors, Mezcal is filling chairs and serving up quality cuisine in a stylish atmosphere.
Gomez’ secret to running his restaurant is simple. “To succeed in service, you have to love what you do,” he says. “And we love it.”
Written by Kat Bell
Photography by Daniel Garcia
This article originally appeared in Issue 5.1 Sight and Sound.