Authentic eats: Masa and Mezcal

by Charlie Lyon

10 May 2019

Big flavours satisfy the soul as well as the appetite at this new Stokes Croft cantina

Negronis, move over. There’s a new drink in town, and it’s hit Bristol hard. I’m talking about the mezcal Margarita, attracting a cool new fan base with its rustic, fiery charm. Its hero ingredient comes from the industrious, fervent south of Mexico, made from roasted agave hearts for a deep and earthy flavour. Now it’s packing a punch in new cantina, Masa and Mezcal.

The Margarita here – my first order on a warm Wednesday evening – is a glass of sour, herby, smoky citrus refreshment with big, rough-cut chunks of ice and a chilli-salt rim. Made with mezcal instead of tequila, it takes the classic cocktail to a new level.

Tequila-naysayers, don’t switch off. Sometimes all you need is one stonkingly good experience to make an about-turn on a drink you spent your young-adult life falling out with. I had to travel quite far for mine – to a San Diego rooftop bar (ah, them were the days) but now you need not look much further than Stokes Croft for yours.

Even if mezcal will never be your thing, there are plenty of cool beers and lively wines on the menu at this new Mexican joint – plus, there’s the food. (Speaking of which, the other focus here is the ‘masa’, which is the dough – made from maize or corn – that is used to make some of the most important staples of Mexican cuisine.)

The menu here is exciting – as it would be coming from the team behind Bravas, Gambas and Bakers and Co – and lists botanas (appetisers), masa (tostadas and tacos), crudo (raw dishes), asado (from the barbecue) and sides. There are oodles of vegan offerings and the whole menu is gluten-free too, thanks to that heirloom corn dough. Ordering done (with much help from our super knowledgeable server), we kick back with icy drinks and enjoy the procession of dishes, which arrive as and when in a riot of colour and flavour.

Homemade tortilla chips (£2.50) are up first, served up with a fresh and tangy tomato salsa, cool salsa verde and hot, hot, hot habanero sauce. Keep them on your table to eat with other plates.

Standout tonight (it’s only 6.30pm but already the place is starting to throng) is the sea bass ceviche (£6.50), clean and fresh with zingy flavours of lime, red onion, tomato and coriander, and delicate chunks of our good friend, avocado. It’s excellent value.

On the other end of the taste spectrum, and equally fine, is the grilled lamb leg (£14): a heap of succulent slices of lamb, delicately flavoured and perfectly moist with just a hint of fat and a deliciously salty, charcoaled crust. There’s just enough pasilla sauce – pasillas being a rich-flavoured variety of chilli, dried and traditionally used in soups and stews to thicken them – to add extra umami deliciousness to the lamb without overwhelming it. Tortillas, rice and salsas join the plate of meat.

The fish taco (£4.20) – a lightly crumbed cuboid of firm and flavoursome white fish – is good, but, to me, a little small, although I’m sure the quality of the ingredients justify the price. As a tonic to that, the shredded red cabbage crudo (£5) is a huge pile of crunchy raw veg, souped-up with sweet and rich fresh orange. Sunflower seeds add bite, and there’s a hint of habanero heat lurking underneath. Fried hibiscus gives a floral finish and chewy texture – I’ll definitely be attempting to recreate it at summer barbecues.

Puds haven’t been overlooked, and a Carlota (£6.50) – a slice of frozen lemon creaminess topped with zesty lime and toasted hazelnuts – rounds off an excellent feed. The rustic feel of the food is continued in the interior of rough textures, natural wood and terracotta finishes.

It’s a big space, but most of the tables are snapped up by 7pm, with in-the-know Bristolians arriving in their droves. If you want a date to go with a bang, come here. If you want a catch up with your best pal, bring them here. Want a good time with a group? Definitely book here. Oh, and if you don’t like tequila, yep, you still know where you should head...