By J. Maylee Oddo (AIFF volunteer since 2008, former board member, and self-professed foodie)
On the third floor of the 1879 historic Ashland Masonic Lodge’s Georgian style building, a new restaurant dedicated to upscale, artisanal Mexican food has opened its doors—Mezcal of Ashland. The space has been revamped by Oregon Shakespeare Festival Associate Artistic Director and Scenic Designer Christopher Acebo and graced with the vibrant Chingón paintings of Gabriel Barrera. New sound baffling retrofitted into the ceiling provides a quieter atmosphere. This is the backdrop for a bold new venture into the ancient and modern worlds of Mexican cuisine. During Varsity World Film Week, Ashland Independent Film Festival supporters will have a chance to enjoy a menu specially designed by Mezcal to celebrate the opening night of the fall film festival on Friday, Oct. 4. (Menu below.) The opening night program features a showcase of short films from the Guanajuato International Film Festival (GIFF). Then filmmakers will enjoy a discussion about the film with GIFF’s Executive Director Sarah Hoch, before returning to Mezal for a no-host party. Entertainment will be provided by award-winning classical guitarist Jordan Tapp, from Guanajuato.
“We are very excited to pair our opening night program with this special menu and new restaurant,” said Ashland Independent Film Festival Executive Director Richard Herskowitz. “The menu reflects a deep understanding of Mexican cuisine.”
Authenticity is at the Heart of Mezcal
The inspiration behind Mezcal is Freddie Herrera, a Los Angeles transplant. “We wanted to create a Chicano-based setting to express the energy and richness of Mexico culture and food,” Freddie explained. “Our authentic Mexican restaurant and bar is deeply rooted in heart, soul and culture, and dedicated to showcasing the breadth of Mexican cuisine. I’ve had this idea for a mezcaleria for quite some time, but it took years to figure it out and bring it to fruition.” Mezcal’s namesake is a distilled spirit from the sacred agave—as is tequila, but with some important differences. First made in the Oaxaca region over 200 years ago and called the elixir of the gods, it typically offers a smokey flavor profile.
Freddie, an award-winning mixologist, got his start in the restaurant business at the age of 16. “My dad has been working in restaurants all his life. He was the head chef of Cafe Maurice in Beverly Hills and brought me in to wash dishes. I was introduced to the food industry, the energy—and how to multi-task—within the go-go-go of Cafe Maurice.”
From that early start, Freddie eventually made it to the front of the house at Louise’s Trattoria where his lively warmth and good humor engaged and charmed patrons. It was also where he discovered that he loved pairing wine. Freddie further developed a passion for spirits, which he was able to indulge at Hugos in West Hollywood. “It was small but I got to create their drink menus, learning the complexities and nuances of mixing,” Freddie said. He managed the Passion for Spirits Restaurant in LA before coming to Ashland to work at Hearsay Restaurant.
It’s not surprising that Mezcal’s cocktail menu is chock-full of amazing drinks and the bar boasts a vast selection of tequilas and mezcals. Inspired by the New York City bars Death & Co and Dead Rabbit, Freddie focuses on classic pre-prohibition drinks providing his own twist—replacing gin with mezcal, for example, and working with other ingredients to balance and flavor his specialty cocktails. “One of my favorites that we offer is the Mayan Pyramid. It gets its smoke from Montelobos Mezcal, the sweet from creme de cacao, spice from ancho chile verde and all balanced with lime.”
If the inspiration of Mezcal is Freddie, then the heart of this bold new restaurant comes from its chef, Bibian Charpe. A mere four months ago, Bibian came from Mexico for a visit. Little did she know she would end up staying to help start a restaurant. “It was a matter of the universe and God that brought me here and with these people,” Bibian said. “After learning about the vision of Mezcal and meeting Freddie, that was when I decided to stay here and forget my projects in Mexico.”
After graduating from the Universidad Cuauhtémoc y Guadalajara, Bibian worked for the Hyatt Regency, French restaurants, and catering businesses, but her real understanding of food came from her grandmother. She grew up cooking meals for family and large gatherings for her abuela, learning family recipes and traditions. “Food for me is home, childhood. It is a way to remember important events and and relive moments of happiness.” Bibian draws upon her childhood and her adult experiences to bring the cuisine of Oaxaca, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Puebla regions of Mexico to Mezcal. She even had her grandmother come from Mexico for two months to help fine tune the menu and recipes!
At Mezcal, when possible, ingredients are prepared from scratch, and many ingredients come directly from Freddie’s garden, the growers’ market, or Mexico.
The food at Mezcal is fresh and authentic, and you can taste the happiness Bibian talks about if you close your eyes with each bite: “It represents the spirit of Mexico—beautiful, elegant, flavorful, approachable.”