Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a mezcal bar in Texas that’s so authentically Mexican it accepts pesos as payment. (Current house exchange rate: $1 to 16 pesos.)
NAME: The Pastry War
LOCATION: Historic downtown, Houston
ON THE JUKEBOX: Selena, Édith Piaf, The Champs
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Mezcal margarita: mezcal, key and Persian limes, agave nectar and hickory smoked salt
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Mezcal flights; served with chapulines (dried and spiced grasshoppers) and pineapple wedges dusted with Tajin (chile-lime salt)
WHY WE LOVE IT: When people from Mexico walk into The Pastry War agave bar in Houston, they often ask the bartenders: Is your owner Mexican? This always gets a smile out of general manager Kehlen Selph. “That’s such a great compliment,” she says. “The atmosphere is as accurate [to Mexico] as we can get it. The owner is actually a Houstonian, but trust me the love is there.”
The Pastry War—named for the 19th Century battle between Mexico and France—is modeled after a traditional mezcaleria, or agave bar. From the Día de Muertos mural on the wall to the luchador lampshade on the bar, every detail celebrates the spirit and culture of Mexico. Houston bar titans Bobby Heugel (Anvil Bar & Refuge) and Alba Huerta (Julep) opened The Pastry War to showcase mezcal and tequila, spirits that Heugel had developed a passion for after spending time at small, family-run distilleries in Mexico—the kind of distilleries that are on the verge of extinction.
Because of this, the bar is very selective with the spirits it sells. “We don’t carry the big brands and a lot of people find that really affronting,” Selph says. “But we serve and drink what we believe in. We want to educate.” To be included in the backbar, a distillery must first be visited by a staff member. (There are a few exceptions to this, for instance tequilas that are produced in regions that the staff deems too dangerous to visit.)
And the spirit has to taste good, which implies it wasn’t produced using a diffuser. Diffusing shrinks the traditional manufacturing process from two weeks to two days and creates a product that’s flavorless. The staff even evaluates how the distillery treats its farmers and workers. “Is their pay enough? Are they provided with good healthcare and housing and support?” Selph says. “Big brands that don’t use diffusers may fall short in being a responsible employer. We don’t want to support that.”
You can order your agave straight, served with chapulines (dried and spiced grasshoppers) and pineapple wedges dusted with chile-lime salt. Or you can get three variations of a margarita, each made with a combination of key and Persian lime juices. Or you can get one of the other house cocktails on the menu, all of which tie back to Mexico in some way. One of the most unusual drinks on the list is the Mexican Jumping Bean, made with aguafaba—the water in a can of chickpeas, which also happens to be a great vegan substitute for egg whites.
During the week The Pastry War gets lots of agave nerds who support its mission, some driving all of the way from Dallas just to sample a new bottle. “Quite a few of our regulars have printed off our Captain’s List, bring it in with them and write notes,” Selph says. “They want to try everything. Then they want to travel to Mexico to learn more. Sometimes they’re talking to me and I’m like, are you in the industry? And they’re like, no I’m an accountant! I just like this stuff.” Then on Fridays and Saturdays, it gets packed with bar hoppers downtown. “It’s vibrant and loud and crazy and we’re shaking 10 margaritas at once,” Selph says.
When The Pastry War opened in 2013, it only served agave spirits. The bar now carries a few others such as gin and vodka. “We don’t want to alienate or turn anyone away because they want a vodka-soda,” Selph says. “You can enjoy the bar without drinking agave. But the way it usually goes is somebody sitting next to them will have a bottle of mezcal in front of them, and then they ask what it is. Then I pour them a little taste… When somebody comes in for a vodka-soda and they end up getting a flight of mezcal, it’s the best thing ever.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep