Area restaurants showcase Mexican cocktails and dishes on Nov. 2 to honor the deceased.
By Kelly A. Magyarics
Day of the Dead, “Día de los Muertos” in Spanish, is a Mexican holiday where friends and family gather to pray for and remember loved ones who have passed away. The feast dates back before Hispanic and Christian times, and is one of the most important holidays in the Mexican culture, as natives view death not as an ending, but a natural progression and normal stage in the circle of life. Traditions include creating private altars where gifts of sugar skulls, marigolds and the departed’s favorite foods and beverages are offered to honor friends and family members.
To recognize this important holiday, several Mexican restaurants in the Washington area are offering food and drink promotions today:
Oyamel’s Day of the Dead promotions started at the end of October, and wrap up today. José Andrés and his team are featuring four new festive cocktails and a menu of dishes showcasing Mexico’s most ancient, pre-Hispanic foods, known to be set out on Day of the Dead altars as offerings. Menu highlights include Mukbil Conejo, a Mayan-style tamal with rabbit, duck, achiote and habanero, with a pico de gallo of red grapes, Serrano cheese, onion and epazote; Pescado Tikin Xik, grouper marinated in achiote, Mexican oregano and vinegar cooked a la plancha with fried plantains and a salsa of tomatoes, pineapple, habanero and onion; and Taco de Camote con Mole de Cacahuates, sweet potatoes and hominy cooked in butter and achiote with a green mole, garlic, onion, tomatillos and cilantro garnished with onions and a nest of fried sweet potatoes. The Day of the Dead menu items range in price from $8 to $14.
On the liquid side, Oyamel is mixing up four concoctions utilizing traditional ingredients. The Marigold combines Del Maguey Mezcal Vidal, Crème de Cacao, lemon and marigolds, served in a glass rinsed with Xtabentun, a Mayan anise, and honey-flavored liqueur. The complex and potent Zombie mixes Azul Centenario Tequila, Sailor Jerry Rum, apricot brandy, Falernum, Xtabentun, honey, cardamom, coconut milk, bitters and fresh pineapple, papaya and lime juice. The eclectic Sacrifice uses roasted turkey-infused El Jimador Reposado Tequila, Curacao of Curacao Liqueur, agave, lime, mole bitter and Nopal sea salt. Finally, the Atole Negro Licor highlights a house-made liqueur with Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, sweet corn, Mexican cinnamon, honey, Oaxacan chocolate, apple, Amaranth, almonds, chile de arbol, hoja santa, an aromatic herb, and mamey, a Mexican fruit similar to a cantaloupe; the drink is colored with Oaxacan squid ink. Cocktails are priced from $8 to $14.
The team at Oyamel shared the recipe with me for the Marigold. Xtabentun is a luscious, rich liqueur flavored with honey and anise, which I first sipped several years ago while on vacation in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Mezcal is Tequila’s smoky, brooding cousin—a perfect reminder of the burning candles and fires lit in remembrance and as offerings on November 2.
Courtesy of Oyamel, Washington, D.C.
The team at Oyamel told me that marigolds are picked in Oaxaca and used as part of the offering of gifts to the spirits on the Day of the Dead. The petals of the flower are often spread on the ground in hopes that their pungent aroma and bright color will help guide the spirit to the home altar (ofrenda) and to the cemetery. In Oaxaca, the indigenous people call the flower “Cempasuchitl” in the Aztec language Nahuatl. The Spanish name of the flower, “flor de muerto,” means flower of death.
1 ½ oz. Del Maguey Mezcal Vida
¾ oz. White Crème de Cacao
¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
Xtabentun Liqueur, for rinse
Sugar and Oaxacan sea salt, for rimming
Marigold, for garnish
Rinse a chilled coupe glass with Xtabentun, and then rim glass with sugar and Oaxacan sea salt. Add the remaining ingredient, except garnish, to a cocktail shaker. Add ice, shake until chilled, and strain into the prepared coupe glass. Garnish with a marigold.
Bandolero is hosting a “Wake the Dead Party” tonight. Starting at 10 PM, Mike Isabella’s Mexican restaurant is turning down the lights and turning up the music—enough to wake the dead. There will be a DJ on the first floor and a costume contest from 10 to midnight, with prizes including lunch and dinner at Bandolero. A special menu of libations for $9 each will be offered, including the Chupacabra, made with Los Amantes Joven Mezcal, St. Germain, Carpano Antica and lime. Reservations are not necessary.
At Cleveland Park’s Ripple, the Day of the Dead-inspired cocktail, Que Pera ($14), mingles vanilla-infused Tequila, cardamom-infused gin, pear puree, spiced pear bitters and marigolds.
“Mole” comes from the Nahuatl word “mulli”, meaning “sauce, mixture, stew or concoction,” and is one of the traditional dishes prepared on the Day of the Dead. In pre-Hispanic times, it was typically made of dried chiles, tomatoes, chocolate and seeds. Today, moles are unique to regions, towns and even families. At La Sandia in Tysons Corner, chef Richard Sandoval is
cooking up four featured moles in the restaurant’s annual Mole Festival, which runs October 1 to December 31. Sandoval was inspired by fond memories of the food shared between family, friends and neighbors at the yearly mole festival in San Pedro Actopan, Mexico. His Mole Pipan from Mexico City is a slightly spicy blend of pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, chile poblano and nuts; Mole Poblano from Puebla is complex and nutty, with spices, chiles and Mexican chocolate; Oaxaca’s Mole Rojo uses mild guajillo chiles, chile ancho, cumin and oregano; and Mole Negro, also from Oaxaca, is of medium spice with nuts, charred tomatoes and avocado leaves. Each can be ordered with a choice of pan roasted chicken breast, sautéed jumbo shrimp, grilled skirt steak, slow cooked pork carnitas or market vegetables, with selections ranging from $16.95 to $21.95.
I recently headed to La Sandia to sample the moles firsthand. Though the menu gives helpful advice as far as which protein best pairs with each mole, it’s still a little tough to decide. But a thoughtful appetizer offers a tasting plate of four cheese quesadillas ($9.95), each topped with one of the four different sauces. My dining companion and I found the best flavor combos to be the grilled skirt steak with Mole Negro, which was rich, dark and complex, and the Mole Rojo with carnitas and just a hint of spice to complement the fork-tender pork.
To wash down it all down, La Sandia is offering two specialty cocktails. The lip-tinging Habanero Blood Orange Margarita ($10.95) combines Reposado Tequila, citrus, blood orange habanero purée and a mole negro rim–it’s all at once spicy, earthy and tangy. My friend and I agreed that the refreshingly tropical Guava Mojito riff ($9.95) goes down waaaay too easily.
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on www.twitter.com/kmagyarics.