Restaurant review: Mezcal cocktails are a highlight at new Mexican-American fusion restaurant

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

It can be tricky categorizing Mezcal Cantina and Grill’s fusion-y cuisine. “Mexicanized American pub grub” probably comes closest. In theory, that could be fun and flavorful. In practice, when Mezcal’s competent food avoids taking a bold culinary stance, it wobbles in undistinguished territory.

Open almost two months, this bright and tidy place on Hard Road with two dining rooms and a large bar (with sports-tuned TVs) is fairly agreeable looking. Its previous existence as an Old Bag of Nails has been upgraded with smile-provoking “Day of the Dead” touches and eye-catching pictures that sometimes evoke the great Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

While my service was always friendly, it ranged from unfamiliar with the menu to knowledgeable yet overly solicitous. This became less disconcerting after sampling Mezcal’s good cocktails.

Designed by all-star local mixologist Cris Dehlavi, Mezcal’s flavor-layered libations are a highlight. For instance, its Margarita Caliente ($8) adds heating elements (jalapeno, a spice-dusted rim) and cooling components (cucumber and cilantro) that enhance a well-made classic.

The Mezcal Mule ($8) is another old favorite given a nifty spin without obliterating its original identity. Made with Cazadores reposado tequila and Del Maguey Vida mezcal (which gives it a smoky finish), it hides potency — whose kick recalls its namesake critter — behind its pink color (from Creme Yvette) and easy drinkability.

For something easy to eat, try the Fresh Bacon Avocado Mole ($7). Served with warm “gorditas” (here, they’re crispy flour tortilla chips) and corn tortilla chips, this appetizer answered the burning culinary question: “Why put bacon grease and corn in already-good guacamole?” with a nearly convinced “Why not?”

Mezcal’s dense Red Pepper Pinto Puree ($6.75) is also served with those crunchy house gorditas and tortilla chips. I only wish the stiff dip’s other listed ingredients, such as roasted garlic and onion broth, shone through more, because my big serving just tasted like subtly tangy refried beans.

I also expected more chipotle character from the Chipotle Chicken Pizza ($8), which ate like a yellow cheesy hybrid between American-style quesadillas, nachos and pizza. Conversely, the Jalapeno Cheesesteak Quesadilla ($9.50) tasted exactly how it sounds — typical cheesesteak stuff zested up by jalapenos, and stuffed into a big and nicely crisped flour tortilla.

The Cheesesteak quesadilla came with what Mezcal’s one-page menu calls “Aztec Fries” — who knew the Aztecs ate limp and un-crisped potatoes? Fries also accompany burgers topped with queso dip and chorizo, or roasted chilies plus a blackened house spice blend (each $8.75).

Mezcal’s pleasant Carnitas Verde ($13) was a homey rendition of the Mexican standard. Big chunks of tender and comforting (but absent an exterior sear) pork shoulder were drenched in a tangy tomatillo salsa, and served with soupy black beans plus above-average Mexican-style rice.

Those same worthy sides arrived with Mezcal’s Pollo G’isado ($12). Lacking depth and intense savoriness, this otherwise perfectly fine assembly of stewed tomatoes and a few potatoes with pulled chicken on top, reminded me of arroz con pollo instead of a guisado (“guisado” connotes a flavor-packed Latin stew).

Mezcal’s Fish Tacos ($9.25) offered the exact qualities I’d like from more dishes here: a distinct look and distinct flavor, both of them bold. Three real-deal soft corn tortillas were loaded with lots of chopped tilapia and tomatoes liberally accented with paprika and cayenne pepper. Raw cabbage strips and hints of fennel provided crunchy and interesting foils. Gilding the lily was a centerpiece of smoky, pork-scented sauteed corn kernels crowned with a zestily spiced and good-sized, clean-tasting shrimp.

With more dishes like that, Mezcal might rise above its current status as the kind of “not-bad” place you wouldn’t mind having in your neighborhood restaurant rotation.

Photos by Meghan Ralston

Mezcal Cantina & Grill

1993 Hard Rd., Northwest Side