Let Los Feliz School You on Today’s Finest Tequila

You think you know tequila? Perhaps you do, but I guarantee you’ll find a few bottles behind the bar at Manhattan’s Los Feliz that you haven’t yet had the pleasure of sampling. I certainly did. I recently spent a pleasurable hour on a barstool there under the guidance of head bartender Ben Carrier, who took me through some of the Lower East Side tequileria’s most interesting and eye-opening offerings. With a tequila menu divided into blanco (unrested), reposado (rested less than one year), and añejo (rested beyond one year) categories, he quickly got me up to speed on the many beautiful expressions of the fruit of the agave plant. I highly recommend that every spirits enthusiast submit to the same rigorous training regimen.

 
If you swore off tequila years ago, realize that today’s finest bottles are miles from the swill that gave you the worst hangover of your life back in college. When you’re at Los Feliz you can forget about the lick-slam-suck ritual designed the mask the flavor of rotgut. Every one of the 120-plus tequilas you’ll find there are meant to be sipped as you would a fine Scotch. From the Hacienda del Cristero blanco to the Milagro Select Barrel reposado to the Don Pilar añejo, you’ll want to savor every sip, rather than getting it in your belly as quickly as possible before the wet T-shirt contest begins. Unless you’re some kind of jimador, you’ll need some guidance, so tell Carrier (or whoever happens to be behind the bar) a little about your preferences, and you’ll have a mind-blowing tequila in front of you in no time. 
 
But what if straight spirits aren’t your thing, and you prefer the complexity of well-made cocktails? Again, you’re in the right place. I’ve enjoyed many margaritas in my day, but never thought of them as anything more than a fun and frivolous drink to enjoy in the sunshine, certainly not a sophisticated and nuanced cocktail. With one sip, the Los Feliz Classic changed my mind on the subject. Made with Pueblo Viejo Blanco, fresh lime juice, and organic raw agave, it’s a mildly sweet and an amazingly well-balanced drink sure to please even the most discerning cocktail drinker. It’s a margarita that’s been to finishing school, refreshing and delightful. And if you don’t love it, there are a half-dozen other margarita varieties to choose from, not one of which is extruded from a neon-green slushie machine. 
 
Once you’ve had a few sips, order some red snapper ceviche from chef Julieta Ballesteros’ dinner menu and explore the funky tri-level space. From the street-level Taqueria, which faces Ludlow Street, find your way to the secret door that leads to the Cobble Room, with muraled walls and a gorgeous marble bar. A few more steps down brings you to the lounge, which boasts a DJ, chandeliers, antique mirrors, and leather banquettes: perfect for a private party with a few dozen of your closest friends. 
 
Back at the bar, you’ll probably be feeling a bit more adventurous at this point, so go ahead and splurge on a glass of Porfidio añejo ($19) and watch the pedestrians rush down the sidewalk in a stress-fueled hurry that you simply don’t feel anymore.

Group Dinner Lottery

Organizers of big group dinners have it rough. The individual is subjected to the whims of 5 to 15 people or more, often on an email chain where the last suggestion paired with a witty retort or clever anecdote about the level of attractiveness of the staff at such-and-such restaurant wins. Well, screw it. If you volunteer to organize a group/birthday/going away/welcome home dinner, use this new fool-proof method and eliminate haggling amongst potential dinner-goers. It’s not complicated. It’s a lottery, but unlike the New York state variety or credit card roulette, in this game of chance everyone wins. Write down each restaurant on the list below on a separate piece of paper, shuffle ’em around, and pull from a hat. First restaurant wins. It’s not complicated, it’s just science. Bon chance!

Bacaro Sit in the cavernous basement wine cellar for a candle lit evening that’ll mask the group’s escalating inebriation. Make a private party reservation if you have a large group and get your own Phantom of the Opera-inspired room.

Abe & Arthurs Sure, it’s a little sceney, but the menu is pretty easy for everyone. They have Spinach & Artichoke dip, fish, pork, steak and pasta, and salads for girls who don’t eat. It’s also a one-stop shop in that you can take the crew directly downstairs to SL. Just remember, no physical activity for 30 min after eating.

Scuderia Let’s face it, Da Silvano is for your parent’s friends. But during the summer, the outdoor sidewalk seating just crushes it (in terms of awesome-ness). Scuderia has a younger vibe and your friends will thank you after a night of 6th Avenue people watching and catching up.

Gemma Easy to book a biggun’ as long as you plan ahead. They’ll forget the ‘no reservations’ policy if you have a group of 12 or more, and they prefer to arrange a prix fixe menu for you and the gang.

The Smith East Village American Brasserie with a photo booth in back! Just in case you get bored with the seating arrangement.

Barbuto Groups of ten or more can reserve the kitchen table and sample the chef’s tasting menu. Way cooler than the way the proletariat does it.

Freemans Reservations for 6 or more, and nothing says celebration like escaping the city rush up Freemans Alley and stepping into Narnia/Hogwarts/The Wardrobe/Whatever mythical realm you prefer.

Dumont For groups up to 15, the Williamsburg hotspot reserves the breathtaking terrace, and if you’re smart, you’ll request the ‘treehouse’, that rises above the garden and gives your party a little more privacy.

Los Feliz Tri-level taquería has plenty of room to accommodate your rowdy group, plus their lounge stays open until 4am, so the odds of getting kicked out early are nearly impossible. There are also 150 tequilas in stock here, in case you want to set some sort of record.

Alta The seasonal tapas menu is extensive, and there’s no food envy as everything’s share-able. If you’re feeling aggressive, order “the whole shebang” for $420. It is one of everything on the menu, and no one will go home hungry. Request the upstairs area through the kitchen for super secluded private dining.

Industry Insiders: Rob Shamlian, Downtown Turnaround

Rob Shamlian has been in New York for 15 years. Pretty good for a guy who’s opened five restaurants and bars in a two-block radius on the Lower East Side. The L.A.-native comes from a background of the hospitality savvy, and his brother Will is huge on the West Coast (Library Bar, Spring St., Laurel Tavern). More on his newest addition, the “cantina with a club feel” and some input on the age-old New York v.s. L.A. war.

On his background: I did photography for ten years. I had agents in every city, and then it ran its course. I was traveling a lot and living off editorial. So, I did a lot of magazines and I figured, “You know what? It’s time to make some money.” My brother was in L.A. doing several places. So basically, I just said, “I want to do something here [in New York],” and asked him how to open a place. He wouldn’t tell me a thing, he just kept telling me not to do it. I opened Darkroom and he eventually gave me advice the whole way. From there, I opened Fat Baby, Spitzer’s Corner, Mason Dixon, and Los Feliz.

On the simplicity of opening bars: After photography, this was a piece of cake, actually. In editorial photography, there are so many elements to master. Half of its production and half of it is putting together teams. Stylists, hair, make-up, models, you deal with so many elements. Opening a space is similar, but it seemed like a cakewalk to me. When I was doing fashion, I was focusing 24/7. There’s no break at all. Here, you open up a place, you move on. Basically, you work your own hours.

On the lead-up to working your own hours: I want to open as fast as possible! I open, I put management in place, and I oversee them. If I do multiple places at once, I’m in touch with the other places and I move on to work with the other places and do tweaks. The manager is the one who will spend most of the time on the premise, and I check in daily. I don’t really micromanage unless there are issues.

New York v.s. Los Angeles: In L.A., bars close at 2 a.m. In New York, people live in very tiny places, so they want to get out. There’s a lot more energy on the streets here, and if people get hammered, they take a cab. I L.A., you can park yourself in front of a big TV. You have a pool and a 12-bedroom house.

On the new joint, Los Feliz: Los Feliz was meant to be a café on the top floor and a very casual place–a cantina with a club feel. We happened to get a really good chef, Julieta Ballestero from Crema, so our food ended up more upscale then I originally wanted. We still price it very fairly, but it’s not just plain tacos. There are very different ingredients. It’s all fresh.

Favorite menu item: All of it! There’s a really good ceviche on the menu that I eat a lot. There’s a foie gras taco that’s really good.

On future expansion: Basically, I’ve opened five places on the Lower East Side within two blocks. It’s great because I go back and forth. That’s where I’m looking right now. I’m trying to put together investors for basically five other places that I’m going to do around the city. I’m doing stuff in Brooklyn and I’m trying to diversify around the LES.

On his block: I liked the location of Spitzer’s. I was talking to the owner for six to eight months at least trying to get that space. They were going to give it to Starbucks. I talked to the other owner of that space. First, his thing was, “I’d give it to you, but my dad works here.” I said, “That’s okay. I’ll give him a job.” Eventually, I wore him down and he rented it to me.

Go-to’s: I’m not a big fan of the club scene, because I’m a little bit old for that. We take the kids to Brooklyn Teahouse. I hear The Meatball Shop is pretty good. My brother’s place, Laurel Tavern in L.A.

Worst habit: Poker. I’m a gambling freak. I don’t know if I feel guilty about it. I’m not scared of losing.

Lower East Side Reborn (as a Fat Baby)

At the beginning of the aughts, scenesters were already chattering that the Lower East Side was dead. After decades of hosting immigrant cultures and earning a reputation as the neighborhood most likely to relieve you of your wallet, Max Fish be damned, its moment as an urban frontier for artists and cool kids, off the radar of tourists and the tragically unhip, ended quickly. It rapidly swarmed with high-end boutiques and expensive lounges and out of town guests directed there by a knowing concierge, while staples like Luna Lounge, Tonic and Collective Unconscious were forced out of the ‘hood they helped create.

Because the new offerings were targeted to a bland, wealthy audience dependent on the ‘00s boom economy, and unlikely to move into apartments the size of tenements, whatever the counter-tops were made of, it was predicted that customer traffic would eventually trickle down and high-rents would topple the new neighborhood order. Blogs like Eater pulled no punches when reporting on venues like The Blue Seats, whose initial customer “deal” was to offer NFL game-day seat reservations for $50 a piece – excluding the cost of drinks. (Despite being “Deathwatched,” Blue Seats is still open for business.) Back in 2006, I had an assignment to write a piece about the rumored closing of Ludlow Street’s split-level club Libation and what that meant for the neighborhood. It, too, is still open.

In fact, despite the financial and real estate markets having soured, business is still booming on the LES. Clothing boutiques abound in even greater numbers than they did five years ago. The pricey and unremarkable restaurant at the Hotel On Rivington, now called Levant East, seems to be humming along after several misfires. The weekend lines outside the overpriced, widely-reviled, tightly-packed rock club Fat Baby are long, and brimming with a bridge and tunnel crowd. There’s no shortage of acclaimed restaurants or $6 draft beers within arm’s reach of the intersection of Ludlow and Rivington. It’s hard to get weekend seating at beer havens Spitzer’s Corner or the Marshall Stack and just about impossible to spend less than $20 on two beers and an appetizer in either venue.

And, there’s so much more to come. At least two dozen nightlife venues have opened, or are about to open, in the hood this year, despite the recession. Apparently, flavorless gentrification can go on and on and on, a lesson we should have learned from the Meat Packing District.

The LES’s new hangouts include, The Doghouse, a cavernous dive bar that serves free hot dogs; Meatball Shop, self-explanatory; T-Poutine, dishing up the newly trendy Canadian confection involving fries, gravy and cheesecurds; Los Feliz, a three-story upscale taco and tequila bar; Thompson LES, a trendy hotel with a poolside lounge and a zero-star restaurant (hello, alumni sorority mixer!); Bia Garden, a mostly-hidden Vietnamese beer garden; an upcoming piano bar AND an upcoming karaoke lounge; and yet another unnamed, unlisted speakeasy far from the subway. I don’t intend to label any of these concepts as dreadful (Los Feliz and Bia Lounge seem to be well-regarded), but none of them seem particularly inventive, with their well-studied, one concept hook. Would you brag about any of those things to your out-of-town friends to justify your four-figure rent?

Of course, if you’re forced to hang on the LES, which inevitably, you will be, many of the spots that opened in the aughts, and especially the later aughts, aren’t so bad. If you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well enjoy a Banh Mi and a good cocktail. So if you do find yourself wandering south of Houston, east of Bowery, here’s a game plan that works. The LES is dead, long live the LES.

Eat lunch at An Choi. The entire menu is superb, and it’s a particularly suitable place to grab a lunchtime banh mi and beer — and if daytime drinking is not your thing, the Roasting Plant serves exceptional coffee mere steps away. Grab first date drinks at Allen & Delancey, which still runs an impressive bar even if the kitchen is infamously volatile. Get your snack fix at Mikey’s Burger, imminently opening in the old Rush Hour space, where Michael Huynh promises to offer clever Asian spinoffs of the American classic. Browse leather jackets at Orchard Street on Sundays, when pedestrians reclaim the street from vehicles and the storefront’s move their racks to road’s center. Drink one of the last cheap PBRs around at Welcome To The Johnsons, which hasn’t changed since you were last there in 2004. Find one of the first respectable LES sushi restaurants at Uo (mostly unmarked, above longtime resident 151 Bar). Eat fresh liquid-nitrogen-made ice cream — indeed, they make it right in front of you with KitchenAid Artisan mixers — at Lulu And Mooky’s. Get your dance party fix at 200 Orchard, once the hottest new neighborhood nightclub in 2007, for just over a month until it had licensing issues — it recently reopened, finally. You know exactly what you’re getting at Stuffed Artisan Cannolis (as a self-respecting Italian I can tell you that the regular cannolis are good, but the cannolis with unusual fillings, PB&J, pumpkin spice, are better). Finally, if you are nightlife royalty and you must do one thing that is late-night, exclusive, luxurious and satisfying, stop at The Eldridge. You will find a buzzworthy hotspot that delivers the goods — if you can get past the doorman

New York: Top 10 Downtown Joints to Launch a Noche Mexicana

Mayahuel (East Village) – Cocktail connoisseurs of Death & Co. build a tequila tabernacle to namesake goddess of pulque and agave. Dark, sexy atmo coupled with the smart pours will have you sinning and confessing, alternately. ● La Esquina (Nolita) – Bar scene with authentic Mexican food from über-scenesters Serge and Cordell. Dungeon chic and tacos. Not as stealth as at the start, but still holding its own. ● Los Feliz (Lower East Side) – Fat Baby peeps continue their colonization of Hell Square with South of the Border entry. La Esquina meets Spitzer’s over margaritas. Come get feliz.

Su Casa (Greenwich Village) – Speakeasy entry, small plates, extensive tequila list: zeitgeist is in full effect at this buzzy Mexican-style stealth spot. More style than you could ever hope to experience this close to a Qdoba, ● Mercadito Cantina (East Village) – If Momofuku were a taqueria. Narrow blond-wood bonanza, determined to spread the love of Oaxacan flavor. No license for hard liquor, but cocktails fake it admirably with “Tric-quila.” ● Papatzul (Soho) – Complex Mexican fare, can feel unexpected if you’re used to three hard-shell tacos and a side of E. coli from the local Taco Hell. Enough free-flowing tequila to dislodge the stick from most anyone’s ass. ● Cabrito (West Village) – Turquoise walls, red light bulbs, no-res policy give LES feel to hopping W. Vill. hacienda. Energetic vibes stoked by Smokin’ Durazno Fizz, made of peach, honey, and tequila. ● Móle (Lower East Side) – Postage-stamp-sized joint tricked out with Mexican tchotchkes and Talavera tile, looks good in the candlelight. Damn fine margaritas, with nary a drop of sour mix in sight. ● Agave (West Village) – Mahi mahi tacos swim past your eyes in a colorful dining room of adobe walls, mahogany floors, and trellised ceilings. Tank up from the endless tequila list, wander into the mountains to hallucinate yourself stupid while eating lobster and mango quesadillas. ● Barrio Chino (Lower East Side) – Comfy, serene, open to the LES street, which gets less barrio and less Chino every day. Something about agave makes us sin profusely. Good eats, too, should you be in the market for tacos and tortas.