Mezcal, mezcal, mezcal. It’s not only everywhere; it’s achieved “beyond-everywhere” status. But the once-minor Oaxacan liquor clearly cannot keep up with San Francisco’s demand for smoky, spirit-forward cocktails, so a bar-restaurant devoted to artisanal agave was probably overdue. That such a place would open in Russian Hill is no surprise, either. But Mezcalito, which is six months old, is anything but a hangout for indiscriminate people who don’t care that it’s not the same thing as tequila because they’re just looking to get shwasted.
Rather, it’s for cocktail aficionados — if you don’t want to educate yourself by sipping one of more than 60 mezcals, that is. Mezcalito also maintains lockers, so you can keep your purchases safe between palate-training sessions.
But if you are down for a cocktail, you’ve got options. In spite of its sweetness, I loved how balanced and gentle the Espíritu Santo (reposado tequila, yellow Chartreuse, elderflower liqueur, and orange bitters) was, but if you want to embalm yourself with a Barrel-Aged Mezcal Vieux Carré, I say go for it. (Did Mezcalito chicken out by declining to include absinthe? You decide.) And the Tequila Pimm’s Cup feels more like a riff on the Dark & Stormy than anything else.
The menu is pitched at such an angle that it’s hard to determine if this is a mezcal bar with a kitchen, or a restaurant jumping on the mezcal trend. My gut wants to go with the former, and that suggests a gambit of sorts: Lure with the booze, impress with the food. Everybody likes it when you underpromise and overdeliver, right?
With a spread of de facto bar bites, most of them in the $11 to $15 range yet few of them explicitly shareable, Mezcalito is practically concealing its true nature. There’s a market-price steak “for three or more” with mushroom and chipotle cream, as well as a $13 gouda burger, but most of the rest is overtly Cal-Oaxacan: a $20 caesar salad with chicharrones and queso fresca, an $18 octopus tostada, a $12 beer-battered fish taco, and a $9 mashed avocado with queso fresco and yellow corn chips (i.e., guacamole in all but name, and plenty chunky).
The burger is very good, by the way, although lacking even the option to order fries is frustrating. Then there’s the sweet potato with avocado, ricotta, sunflowers seeds, cumin, and shiso ($11). I honestly don’t know what to make of it. Akin to St. Francis Fountain’s “Nebulous Potato Thing,” it’s basically a big blob of mush flecked with as many seeds and toppings as a twice-dipped everything bagel. Unlovely? Sure. Bro-ish? Arguably. But tasty? You betcha. I also dug the hamachi ceviche ($15), which, in addition to internal assonance and a burst of heat, has an appealing visual component where the orange chili oil floats atop the yellow citrus base. Overall, this is probably too thin of a menu to make for a proper appetizer-and-entree dinner, but it’s much more than a collection of afterthoughts intended to soak up the booze. Happy hour sounds like the obvious angle, but opening at 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays suggests this spot wants to be a consistent blip on your late-night radar — except on a recent Sunday night, when the last call for food was five minutes after nine. (Tuesdays are Taco Tuesdays, though.)
The interior is rather striking, and also notable for what it does not contain. There are no altars, no skulls, no Mexican folk art, and no brightly colored anything. It’s not Calavera, in other words. Nor is it Loló. Instead, there are large doorframes on one wall plus a wood-paneled library of mezcals accessible by a rolling ladder — not an entirely new addition, admittedly — and while there are two flatscreens embedded above the bar, the vibe is such that I don’t see crowds erupting as one when [Insert Random Home Team] scores. Not too often, anyway.
One issue Mezcalito faces is that many people have tried to make a go of this capacious address. Like 2222 Market St., which has housed four restaurants in five years, 2323 Polk St. has had five in five. Until last year, it was Reverb, which was a play on Verbena, its highly regarded predecessor (and spinoff of Gather in Berkeley). Before Verbena, it was the Spanish-influenced Marbella, and before that, it was the brunch-centric Rex Cafe.
Aside from parking, that bane of Yelpers everywhere, I see no obvious reason why this space should be that doomed. (Let’s get the obvious one out of the way: Curious dimensions notwithstanding, Mezcalito is not overly loud. There are sound dampeners arranged on the ceiling in a grid, and hey, I brought my mom, and she didn’t complain.) I also like that there’s every imaginable seating arrangement: outdoor tables, ordinary two-tops, bar stools both low and high, a communal table, and seats against the front window, looking out.
Continuing on the assumption that Mezcal is at heart a bar and not a restaurant, it’s an arrangement that would represent a break with the space’s past, too. Mezcal is not merely trendy but experiencing Zoolander levels of “sooo-hot-right-now,” and it remains to be seen whether Mezcalito can surf that wave indefinitely before a shift in the winds forces a re-brand and it has to 2323-skidoo. But it’s poised to prosper in the meantime. This is one worth circling the block for.
Mezcalito, 2323 Polk St., 415-441-2323 ormezcalitosf.com