SAN FRANCISCO– A San Francisco restaurant is trying to change perceptions of Mexican food and drink.
Cantina Los Mayas says it’s the first restaurant in the United States to exclusively serve Mexican wine.
It’s quite an achievement considering many people don’t even know Mexico has wineries.
“I had no idea Mexican wines existed. We drink a lot of Napa wines, but it was great to experience Mexican wines,” said one customer.
Cantina Los Mayas is a dream come true for owner Juventino Carrillo.
He has owned several taquerias in San Francisco. His newest is Taquería Los Mayas in Inner Richmond, which serves regional Mexican food from the Yucatan.
Carrillo began introducing Mexican wine to his customers there.
“Hey, I have Mexican wine. Do you want to try it?” he would tell his customers.
But Carrillo knew his customers wouldn’t shell out $50 for a bottle of wine with fast food. So he teamed up with his brother and other associates to open Cantina Los Mayas a few blocks from the taqueria.
Thinking about the menu, he looked to the food he ate as a child for inspiration.
“I grew up in the mountains of Yucatan. We used to hunt and it’s very popular to eat duck,” said Carrillo.
The restaurant’s signature dishes include stewed duck in pipian, a sauce of roasted pumpkin seeds and chillies.
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Also on the menu are lamb shanks seasoned with a smoked pepper sauce and a whole fish in a mango habanero pepper cream sauce.
“The key to Mexican food is the sauce, so pairing it with wine is amazing. You can compare it to French reduced sauces or Italian tomato-based sauces. But here we use sauces made from spices,” said Carrillo.
The wine list includes more than 60 wines. Most of them hail from the Valle de Guadalupe, a region near Ensenada, about a 90-minute drive south of Mexico’s San Diego border. It is Mexico’s premier wine region.
“They have a lot of different soils and weather patterns than here or in Europe. Therefore, the grapes react differently. Sometimes you get a nebbiolo that has a different flavor than you would expect from a traditional Italian nebbiolo,” explained Morgan Anderson, co-owner of Cantina Los Mayas.
Cantina Los Mayas has expanded its range to include wines from the states of Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí and Queretaro.
It also sells wine from Casa Madero, which was founded in 1597 and is the continent’s oldest winery.
But Valle de Guadalupe is a relatively new wine region. Most wineries are around 50 years old or less.
Anderson says this gives them the freedom to be more experimental in their winemaking.
“You get a remix of some of those grapes that you traditionally want, but you get a different version of it,” he said.
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Kara Potthasd was visiting for the first time and was surprised by the varied tastes of a grape she was familiar with.
“It’s 100% Mourvedre. I’m used to being from France. It is therefore interesting to taste it from a completely different region. The wine is a hidden gem,” said Potthasd.
So why aren’t Mexican wines better known in the United States? The answer depends on the supply.
Many wineries are relatively small, only producing 50 to 100 cases of a given wine. So they are not exported.
Anderson suspects there are also prejudices against Mexican spirits that aren’t tequila, mezcal, or beer.
“Some people have stereotypes and expectations and I think our job is education,” Anderson said. “The quality is there. They have an amazing wine that is just absolutely delicious. And people just have to accept it and try it without judging it first,” Anderson said.