I received the news of a crowd-sourced mezcalería in downtown Raleigh—Gallo Pelón, the state's (and possibly the Southeast's) first—with skepticism and excitement.
Often described as tequila's smoky cousin, mezcal runs the gamut in both taste and quality, so I worried the range of options might be limited. If the public knows little about your central spirit, why be ambitious with the offerings? But I was happy to investigate. I was even happier to be wrong.
On a Monday evening, I ascended the darkened staircase to Gallo Pelón. The howling calavera masks, metal lamps and colored tiles of Centro yielded to sophisticated rust-red walls, stained wooden booths and sleek track lighting. Gallo Pelón, "the bold rooster," is the latest addition to a familial Latino restaurant empire that includes Centro below and dual Dos Taquitos locations. Uncle-and-niece combo Carlos and Angela Salamanca—both from Colombia—opened the restaurant as an additional Dos Taquitos location in 2007, but eventually dropped the surname.
The journey to open Gallo Pelón was neither as short nor as easy as Salamanca and bar manager Marshall Davis had hoped. Building and code difficulties pushed back the schedule for the upstairs space several times, so that what was meant to open in 2013 just launched in January of this year. And that was only after a crowdfunding campaign raised nearly $40,000 to finish the project.
The setting is impressive, at least. The bar boasts a cornucopia of bottles, contrasting the stark minimalism of the dining area itself. A massive print, mounted on a central wall, features a giant bird, maybe a hen (for a rooster, it is missing a comb), scratching the ground while balanced on one foot.
Still, I headed for the patio, settling near potted pink bougainvillea and surrounded by three gray walls. The waiter explained that 43 mezcals are listed on the menu—there's that variety I wanted—and more are available if that wasn't sufficient. To me, tequila is mezcal's fresh-faced, technology-obsessed offspring. Tequila is a type of mezcal that has shifted to industrial processing, while artisanal mezcal has experienced a recent boom with small farmers. Tequila is only produced using blue agave and mostly within the borders of Jalisco, while mezcal can come from 20 different types of agaves.
All of this sounded rooted in Mexico, but the restaurant, I was told, is actually a Colombian-Mexican fusion. So we started with our drinks in Mexico and ended with our meal in Colombia.
The waiter, Gregory Martínez, is a sommelier-turned-mezcal expert. Using his wine experience, Martínez offered unpretentious yet comprehensive explanations, transferring his skills from the flavors of the vineyard to those of the palenque, where mezcal is made.
He guided me through two mezcal flights, one labeled "Mezcal 101," the other "Agave Varietals."
The first included a Cazadores Reposado tequila and Wahaka Joven and Del Maguey Minero mezcals. Wahaka is a new distillery, and Gallo Pelón features three Wahaka mezcals in its flights, a move that suggests the breadth of both drink and bar—a common espadín mezcal; a smoky mezcal from the town of Chichicapa; and Madre-Cuixe, a fruity mezcal with a light finish.
There are those, of course, who may not want to sip straight mezcal, so Gallo Pelón incorporates the spirit into both cocktails and completos—that is, beer or wine with a shot. With Cynar, Amontillado sherry and Peychaud's, the bitter Rooster & the Pearl allows the mezcal's flavor to shine. Hornitos Plata paired with Tecate invigorates. The cast of 18 cocktails ranges from the "I Bought a Headache" to the Andean-Spanish fusion "Chicha Sangría." As the tables filled, a few people drank margaritas.
One of Gallo Pelón's strongest assets is the ability to bring in high-quality Mexican mezcals and introduce them in fun, relevant ways to locals. In the future, this might mean branching into offering a couple of Brazilian cachaça options or Colombian aguardientes.
The food menu turns a similar trick, adding Colombian influences to tapas-size portions of American mainstays. At first glance, this seemed like a strange tactic, given the Mexican origins of Gallo Pelón's central drink. Both incredibly diverse culinary regions, Mexico and Colombia share very little gastronomically. Masa staples like tortillas, sopes and gorditas anchor Mexican plates popular stateside, but biodiverse Colombian food incorporates many types of potatoes, preserved meats, tropical fruits and coastal ingredients like yucca. Salamanca's experimental pairing of mezcal and fusion cuisine works well, though. When tasting a drink with such a robust flavor profile, the $7–$12 small plates are welcome, flavorful companions.
The "Yucca Frites" arrived with a knockout habanero-carrot salsa, one of the better uses of the pepper I've ever encountered. The mild pineapple glaze on the short ribs, or "Costillitas del Sur Sur," played well with the vinegar-pickled vegetables. The chorizo burger could hold its own in any foodie hamburger joint.
Overshadowing them all was the glorious, streetfood-style hotdog. It comes nestled in a potato bun, thin layers of toppings adding a host of flavors to the already perfectly cooked dog: white cheese, jalapeño-tomatillo marmalade, mayo-ketchup, pickled onions, chorizo chili, avocado puree and a nice, crunchy finish from tortilla strips. Rather than French fries, it came with a side of Mexican puffed-wheat pinwheels. Gallo Pelón works best when combining intense flavors in the perfect amounts, drawing on ingredients from Colombia and Mexico, North and South Americas to create truly surprising hyrbids.
Sadly, this didn't apply to the "Ceviche Fresco," which was more like pico de gallo with small bits of shrimp, avocado and corn. Ceviche should be marinated in lime juice until the citrus penetrates the meat and, in effect, cooks it. Then it needs something starchy, like a tostada (if it's Mexican style) or plantain chips, saltines or even popcorn. This ceviche came in a small silver cup surrounded by red corn and white flour tortilla chips. It completely lacked the citrus punch. At $10, neither the portion nor the flavor matched the price.
El gallo pelón is a cheesy joke told to annoy the listener, a Spanish-language version of "the shaggy dog story." The jokester asks, "Do you want me to tell you the story of the bold rooster?" and no matter how the listener replies, the answer always goes, "No, I didn't say that. I asked if you wanted to hear the story of the bold rooster!"
Salamanca gave Davis that nickname during their long-term quest to open Gallo Pelón. Good thing they persevered: I left Monday night with less skepticism and a popular Mexican saying on my mind—"Si de felicidad hablamos, mezcal bebamos," or, "If we're talking about happiness, let's drink mezcal."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Upstairs, down South"