Once, mezcal was a craze or a fad—a flavor-of-the-week phase the American drinker was going through. But mezcal settled in and took a spot with other slightly obscure, but not quite niche liquors. Despite mezcal’s similarity to tequila, it’s often compared to scotch whisky, especially by people who don’t like either, for whom both spirits are defined by a few divisive flavors, mostly chiefly, smoke.
Unfortunately, mezcal and scotch share another alienating quality: a price of entry so steep the casual drinker can’t afford to explore the variety of mezcals available.
One spot in Portland long advocating for mezcal has been Teote, the Latin American street food hotspot on Southeast 12th at Hawthorne. But their mezcal bar was somewhat hidden, upstairs, past the sometimes long line of folks ordering arepas at the counter downstairs. And the bar was small, especially in comparison to Teote’s new mezcal bar on Northeast Alberta.
Happily, Teote Mezcalería keeps up the tradition of genuinely idiosyncratic patio spaces: Part of the outdoor space is covered by a roof the underside of which is adorned with an intense, vaguely psychedelic 3D pattern of concentric shapes, and animal skulls and fires abound. It’s not quite as insular and otherworldly as the original Teote’s patio, but it certainly feels in step with the last iteration of Alberta, clearly not a part of the slick new development generation of construction in that area.
The new location also keeps most of the same menu—minus the line. Yes, Teote with table service, finally. Corn-cake arepas are the main attraction, with meat, veggie, and even vegan options—though if you’re much, much hungrier, there are enormous plates of beef short ribs or lamb chop. The cocktail menu is the same, too, but the lack of new additions points to where the menu has expanded, and dramatically: the mezcals.
Demanding a whole spread of the menu in small print, over 100 Mexican spirits line the long backbar. Teote breaks their staggering selection down by the type of agave used—there are many species of agave, though that’s only one factor in the flavor of a mezcal—and offers each in 1½ oz, 1 oz, or ½ oz pours. Though it doesn’t quite reach the heights of super-hyped whiskey, a standard 1½ oz pour can run up to $45, even on Teote’s generously priced menu. So those half-ounce pours make tasting your way through various styles easier on the wallet (especially when paired with a $3.50 pint of draft Tecate).
Flights get their own page on the menu here, and are thoughtfully selected to showcase some of those other factors in mezcal flavor: type of agave, age, distillation method (personally, I’m partial to the dusty minerality found in clay pot-distilled mezcal), and of course terroir. One flight groups three offerings made from wild-foraged agaves, another three high-elevation options. The latter, the “Wild Mountain” flight, presents such a variety of flavors it’s hard to believe they’re all the same type of liquor: from minerally metallic notes in one glass, to green grass flavors in the next, and back to the smoky, earthy notes that typify the spirit for so many drinkers. There are even flights of tequila and more obscure Mexican spirits.
For adventurous drinkers, there is a section on the menu for pechuga mezcals, infused during distillation, à la gin, with a selection of ingredients suspended inside the still. While some of these infusions are more familiar, like fruit, or the juniper-heavy Wahaka Botaniko (leaning toward a gin, but with the earth and smoke of a mezcal), some are those rare distilled spirits that are not vegan or even vegetarian: Sometimes the infusions are seasoned meat, like chicken or turkey, in the still.
Of course, not everyone is headed to a great patio with an already beloved food menu just to geek out on mezcal. Teote knows this, too, and plans to keep the business inviting for all sorts of people are still on the books: Be on the lookout for a rooftop patio, and possibly a music venue and event space next door. But for the agave-curious, it’s hard not to be sucked in by the staff’s generous knowledge of the product at Teote. It’s good to see a passion project unfold naturally like this, given a chance to spread out, strangely but sincerely, pulling a quickly commercializing stretch of Portland just a bit back toward weird.
2700 NE Alberta, Tues-Sun, 11 am-close; closed Monday
As long as we’re north of Burnside sipping spirits from south of the border, there’s a new Peruvian player in town up on North Lombard at Albina, next to the Eagle. Erstwhile Andina chef Zoraya Zambrano has opened a family operation, Casa Zoraya, featuring seriously colorful eats and drinks. Pisco sours are of course the main attraction, but be on the lookout for a Chicha Morada Pisco Sour—made with Casa Zoraya’s house chicha morada, a traditional Peruvian beverage made by stewing purple corn with fruit and spices—a fluffy, purply sour, dark and prickly with acid and earthy spices, the drink’s a perfect complement to the bright, lively space Casa Zoraya has put together in this hidden stretch of Lombard.
841 N Lombard, Tues-Thurs, 4 pm-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 4 pm-close; Sun: 10 am-3 pm