March 2010

Las Perlas: Mezcal’s L.A. Home

  • Raul Yrastorza and Allison Kornberg
  • Julian Cox
  • 400 Rabbits
  • Raul Yrastorza
  • Poblano Escobar
  • Cedd Moses
  • Grant Shumate
  • El Melón
  • Disco Mariachi

The country’s first bar devoted to the artisanal spirit brings a taste of Oaxaca to Los Angeles  by WYATT PEABODY / photographs by PEDEN + MUNK

It's no secret that this is Los Angeles' cocktail moment. L.A. has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to some of the country's most talked about watering holes: bars that draw inspiration from classic cocktails to Prohibition-era speakeasies to farmers' markets to molecular cuisine. But according to Cedd Moses—the man behind groundbreaking establishments such as Seven Grand and the Varnish—a bar dedicated to mezcal, the Americas' oldest spirit, was long overdue. The result: Las Perlas.

In charge is veteran Los Angeles barman Raul Yrastorza, who traveled with his crew to Oaxaca, where they ate, drank mezcal and visited the palenques and palenqueros (distillers) who make this centuries-old elixir. Las Perlas is excited to share its knowledge and the bar's unique offerings—becoming in effect a global headquarters of sorts for mezcal. For those visiting Las Perlas, their first introduction to the drink menu is a chalkboard with colorful agaves painted on either side that frame the distillates by region.

Even though agave zealots will tell you mezcal is to agave what pearls are to an oyster, the name Las Perlas actually refers to the bubbles that occur when well-made mezcal is shaken. Those perlas (or pearls) are also what palenqueros use to measure the quality of the distillate, and they've been doing it for hundreds of years. More pearls means better mezcal. Las Perlas is an apt name for a home of artisanal mezcal, where, Yrastorza says, "each bottle is rich with timeless heritage and the hand of the maker."

The folks at Las Perlas are on a mission—they have every intention of taking agave to the next level. As Moses says, "If you love tequila but aren't familiar with mezcal, we're going to take you on a journey you never expected—and if you don't like tequila, I'll bet we can convert you to agave." He is comfortable in the role of cocktail visionary, and his commitment is greatly responsible for the wealth of quality downtown cocktail destinations.

The whimsical yet authentic vibe at Las Perlas is full of architectural details and a palette usually found only in Mexican barrios, thanks to Ricki Kline, with design elements courtesy of Shepard Fairey and Studio Number One. With cacahuates (peanuts) and chicharrónes (fried pork skins) to accompany the rare booze, a pool table and a jukebox with Vicente Fernández, what more could one want?

A few quick tips to understanding mezcal: Those who mention worms, salt or limes are not to be trusted, nor are those who chase shots with beer. These spirits are meant to be sipped slowly from clay cups—unless, of course, you are imbibing Yrastorza's ethereal cocktails, including El Melón (a delectable concoction of mezcal, citrus and muddled goji berries topped with cantaloupe foam and edible flowers), 400 Rabbits (berries, egg white and tequila) and the Poblano Escobar (mezcal, poblano peppers, cumin, pineapple and orange liqueur), an award-winning libation from Rivera's Julian Cox, who collaborated with Yrastorza on the drink menu.

Warning: Excessive consumption might inspire the bar's mascot—a stuffed goat named Chuy—to assume the reincarnated soul of Carlos Castaneda and levitate you. Don't say you haven't been warned.

Las Perlas, 107 E. 6th St., Los Angeles, 213-988-8355, www.lasperlas.la