Ordering a drink at Jesse's, the old-style bar at Santa Fe's Hotel Plaza Real, can be disconcerting. There's no cocktail menu, for one thing, and even if you try for an old classic--gin martini, Redheaded Slut or even a good old Manhattan--mixologist Alex Velez is likely to put an inventive spin on it.
I, however, enjoy a little experimentation in my libations. As a matter of fact, I think Santa Fe could use a good deal more of it.
Velez, who hails most recently from the same Las Vegas (Nevada, not New Mexico) as Jesse's chief bar manager, Daniel Gonzales, can talk for hours about cocktails. Literally. On one recent occasion, I went in with a friend to have a semi-serious conversation; instead, Velez was so excited about explaining the origins of the bar's organic liquors and homemade bitters (try the baked apple or lavender spice) that we never really had the discussion we meant to. But that was fine, as we were prepared.
So that you, too, know before you go, here's the recipe for Jesse's.
1. Be in the right mood.
i.e., no stick-in-the-mud, I'm-cranky-and-just-want-a-beer attitudes allowed, and it's best if your mind is feeling spongelike and receptive to the wonderful world of fancy cocktails. This is not just about drinking; it is also about learning and living.
2. Have a hankering for something particular...yet vague.
Since Jesse's has no drink menu, you'll have to know something about what you want.
Me: I guess I feel like...something refreshing?
Velez: Try a shot of mezcal.
Me: (not quite what I meant by "refreshing") Um, OK.
Velez: (pours me a generous portion of Mezcal Del Maguey, a Oaxacan agave liquor that can be bluntly described as a more flavorful, smokier version of tequila. Del Maguey is particularly cool because it comes in baskets woven by villagers who receive a portion of the proceeds...which should be a lot considering it goes for $70 to $200 a bottle.)
Me: That's great.
Velez: How about I make you a margarita?
Me: I'm totally sick of margaritas; that's all Santa Fe has. (Whatever, food/drink writers are supposed to be bratty.)
Velez: A different margarita.
Me: What the hell.
3. Open your tastebuds
Velez' take on the, in my humble opinion, way-past-cliché margarita of New Mexico was a subtle but significant improvement: Del Maguey mezcal, the bar's homemade sour mix (19 types of citrus!), an organic orange curacao and garnish salt made with tortilla chips and lemon/lime zest.
4. Open your mouth
A night at Jesse's can run the risk of turning into a party night solely because of Velez' enthusiasm. He has big ideas for revolutionizing Santa Fe's cocktail scene (at last!) and is eager to try out his culinary experiments on pretty much whoever's willing. I had barely finished my mezcal-rita when Velez delivered this:
What's in it?
-lemon-lime Blue Sky soda
-homemade sour mix
-homemade lavender spice bitters
I don't know what you call that other than "good." Refreshingly floral with just a hint of sweetness, it was what every over-sugared girly cocktail miserably fails to be. It was like the day your patent-leather stilettos suddenly become comfortable, or when someone buys you flowers for no reason, or when, after fifty tries, you conquer the feng shui of a tiny apartment and are suddenly living on a yacht. Or just living on a yacht works, too.
The bottom line, of course, is that, yacht or not, you should go to Jesse's. And if my prosaic ramblings haven't convinced you, check out this screamin' deal: