Wild Agave

“We want to have you guys over when we get the place cleaned up a bit,” my pal Gordon had been telling me for five or six years, over the course of two different “places”.

The time had finally come. Gordon and spouse Lori, who had moved into their “new” house a year or so before, were far enough along in their renovations that they now felt comfortable hosting. But nothing ever being simple, we had been trying to schedule this particular dinner party for a matter of months.

The mezcals of Del Maguey

The mezcals of Del Maguey

The theme would loosely be “Mezcal & Mole” — or, at least, that was the subject line of the group texts bouncing around during the protracted planning phase.

The “mole” part would be me — I had offered to cook a Mexican feast at their home. The “mezcal” part would be friend Mike — another kindergarten father, who also happened to be a partner in the acclaimed mezcal, Del Maguey. The evening would be a celebration of autumn, friendship, good food and one of the great traditions of the passionate Mexican province of Oaxaca.

El Hombre, Michael Gardner, making his Mezcal Negroni

El Hombre, Michael Gardner, making his Mezcal Negroni

Del Maguey was founded by a Venice surfbum artist and friend-of-Dennis-Hopper named Ron Cooper, who stumbled upon Oaxacan mezcal country while on a VW van Pan-American Highway road trip in the early 70s, and never looked back. It seems that in remote, nearly inaccessible villages deep in the jungle and high in the mountains, were small groups of native Zapotec Indians producing mezcal — slow roasted local and often wild agave piñas ground by horse-drawn stone wheels and distilled into a sacred spirit — in the traditional method practiced for centuries.

Our friend Mike, native of Malibu and DogTown, grew up with the Cooper family, and would later wind up going to work with Ron in the bringing to the world Del Maguey and the mezcal gospel. This particular evening, he would bring it to us.


Props to Gordo for having a full selection of Mexican beer — Dos Equis light and dark, Negro Modelo and regular Modelo — to provide a foamy cushion before we began our mezcal tasting in earnest with Mike’s Oaxacan take on the classic Italian cocktail, the negroni, served with my Mexico City-style esquites (a street food of stewed fresh corn kernels served with butter, lime juice, crumbled queso cotija and a plop of homemade mayonnaise).

From there, we moved on to the single village mezcals, produced — from low, stout agave with fat thorny leaves and tall, gawky agave with spindly leaves and everything in between — by palenqueros in clay stills along riverbanks in places with names like Chichicapa and Santo Domingo Albarradas. Mike produced a stack of copitas, traditional small terracotta sipping vessels, and poured taste after taste of layered, smoky and surprisingly refined mezcals.

Traditional clay mezcal stills

Traditional clay mezcal stills

“Stigibeu!” Mike toasted as we raised our copitas — the Zapotec blessing to life and spirit — and then as if to bless our evening further, life and spirit answered with the appearance of a fox at the window, who lingered for a moment, watching us, before disappearing into the night. As Mike refilled us, he also explained the tradition of the Juez: the “judge,” a position of honor charged with keeping copitas filled during fiesta. The mezcal ambassador.

Rancheras and boleros played from the stereo as we sipped and talked and sipped and ate: gooey queso fundido with wild mushrooms and chorizo; ahi ceviche on puffed rice cakes with caramelized onion salsachicharrones tacos with queso cotija and Sonoran dried machaca beef tacos with chiles de arbol salsa; and in a nod to the great culinary traditions of Oaxaca, braised pork belly mole with epazote cheese grits.

Ahi ceviche on puffed rice cakes with caramelized onion salsa

Ahi ceviche on puffed rice cakes with caramelized onion salsa

Mike’s wife, Bridget, recounted the story of their recent visit to Oaxaca City for Del Maguey’s 20th anniversary celebration: the Zapotec farmers who emerged from the wilds, never having seen a city before; the leathery palenquero who fell in love with and relentlessly pursued the beautiful and befuddled young marketing girl from the states.

“You’re the Juez!” Mike smiled at me as I refilled the copitas, and I felt anointed — the keeper of a deep tradition resonant within the adopted Mexican DNA of my Southern California roots; the mezcal ambassador. Responsibilities I would accept with gratitude and the full gravity of purpose.

*    *    *

Del Maguey Oaxacan Negroni
one drink

1 oz. Campari
1 oz Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth
1.5 oz Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
Stir, and serve in a rocks glass with a large piece of ice.
Garnish with orange peel

*    *    *

Ahi ceviche on puffed rice cakes with caramelized onion salsa
serves 4

2 cups cooked short-grain rice (Japanese or calrose)
1 cup vegetable oil
1 lb. sashimi-grade ahi, finely chopped
3 limes
1 serrano chili, minced
1 small onion, chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 tbsp. Chinese chili oil
2 scallions, sliced as thinly as possible
small handful of cilantro, chiffonaded
flaky sea salt

1 white onion, sliced
2 tbsp. grapeseed oil
1 clove garlic
3 chiles de arbol
salt to taste

Make rice cakes: spread cooked rice out on a silicone sheet or sheet of parchment on a cookie sheet to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. With a knife, cut lines into the rice to create 8 or so squares, about 2-inches square (so you will be able to break the rice apart into squares when it is dry). Place in a 160-degree oven and dry for 5-6 hours or overnight. (There should be no moisture left in the rice cakes, they should be dry, hard and translucent.)

Heat oil over medium-high in a wok or small skilled with high sides until a grain of dried rice dropped into it sizzles and puffs. Fry the rice squares, a couple at a time, about 15 or 20 seconds per side, until puffed and golden. Remove from heat and drain on paper towels.

Make salsa:

Heat the grapeseed oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Saute the onions until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and chiles and sauce another minute. Remove from heat and puree in a blender. Adjust seasoning and cool to room temperature.

Finish the ceviche:

Toss ahi with juice from two limes. Set in fridge and let marinate for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. Drain lime juice. Add juice of third lime, chili, onion, cilantro and chili oil, and season to taste with salt.

In a small bowl, using your fingers, integrate the scallion slices with the cilantro chiffonade.


Place two rice cakes on each of four plates (or arrange them all on a platter, if preferred). Add a heaping tablespoon of ceviche on top of each rice cake. Top with a spoonful of the salsa, and then a pinch of the scallion/cilantro combo.

Enjoy with a Del Maguey single village mezcal of your choice.


16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    Nov 13, 2015 @ 03:34:19

    Scrumptious Sean!


  2. lesmor99
    Nov 13, 2015 @ 19:14:33

    great post babe. the video cracked me up. there was quite a lot going on in the background with me and the kids…. made me laugh… xoxo



  3. Michelle
    Nov 18, 2015 @ 01:53:31

    I know just how Gordon feels. 🙂


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