The doors to Las Perlas opened last night at 7:30, signaling a new era in L.A.’s spirituous evolution. Three downtown bars from Cedd Moses and 213 Hospitality are now committed to specific spirits. Seven Grand is a whiskey bar, Caña focuses on rum, and Las Perlas is a haven for tequila and mezcal. The man who’s leading the mezcal charge for Las Perlas is general manager Raul Yrastorza, who molded El Carmen’s tequila program, spent eight years running Ivar nightclub in Hollywood, and most recently, worked at Cole’s Red Car Bar before crossing the street.
Downtown designer Ricki Kline was in-house to help celebrate the opening. Las Perlas is the eighth bar he’s designed for 213. He said his design was inspired by a 10-day trip to Oaxaca, where he soaked up the colorful scenery both in-town and on the outskirts. The historic building dates to 1903 and held restaurants in the ’70s. The space most recently housed an art studio, but it’s been vacant for the past few years. Walk through the heavy wood door and you’ll find pastel green walls, a similarly hued bar touting “Mezcal Y Cerveza” and a digital jukebox that plays Latin music. Shelves are lined with jugs painted with the names of mezcal-producing pueblos like Minas, San Baltazar and Sola de Vega. Seating spans bars, booths and tables. There’s a brick-walled patio out front, overlooking Cole’s. In back, there’s a pool table if you’re so inclined.
Rabbit imagery includes the logo and a window hanging with what may be 400 rabbit feet. In pre-Columbian Mexico, the goddess Mayahuel protected agave plants. One of her children was Centzon Totochtin (aka 400 rabbits) who was known for drunken debauchery. Also, in old Mexico, people didn’t see a man on the moon; they saw a rabbit.
A blackboard menu features several dozen LOWLANDS, HIGHLANDS and EXTRA AÑEJO tequilas, which are aged for a minimum of three years. MEZCALS are listed in the center of the board. It’s hard to imagine ordering anything but mezcal or tequila at Las Perlas, but they have five beers on tap, including Dos Equis Amber, Negro Modelo and Cucapa Chupacabras Pale Ale.
Yrastorza and Rivera bartender Julian Cox collaborated on the handwritten cocktail menu, which lists eight options costing $12 apiece. The bartop wasn’t loaded with typical syrups, herbs and fruit. Instead, we saw dried chilies de arbol, pointy agave “leaves” and the burgundy-hued balsamic vinegar and piloncillo reduction that Yrastorza described in his Q&A.
It was impossible to cover every category in one visit, so we stuck with cocktails. All three of our choices incorporated Sombra, an Oaxacan Mezcal that imparted mezcal’s signature smoky flavor, which comes from pit-roasting the piñas prior to distillation. Also, tequila is made from a single variety of agave (blue weaver) and comes from a particular region of Mexico, whereas Mezcal is multi-regional and comes from 28 different possible agave plants. Those are a couple of the basic distinctions.
Poblano Escobar featured mezcal and lingering spice from muddled Poblano chilies and crunchy bell pepper slices. The cocktail was balanced by pulpy pineapple and garnished with an agave leaf.
The justifiably vaunted Juquila was inevitable after Yrastorza’s description, combining mezcal with the tangy, sweet and viscous balsamic-piloncillo syrup. The dried chile de arbol and fresh strawberry garnish added light spice and sweetness.
I finished with the Little Burro, a mix of mezcal, lime juice and soda water, with a cinnamon body and ginger finish.
Las Perlas is part of a new breed of mezcaleria, which along with New York’s Mayahuel, are helping to bring this ancient spirit into the spotlight. And despite what you may have heard, there were no worms in sight.