A cocktail menu should always reflect and complement the cuisine that is being served at a restaurant.
In the case of Salazar, a new Northern Mexican restaurant in Frogtown with a huge outdoor space, instead of focusing on the Mexican food elements of smokiness and simplicity, I built on them. I decided that sessionable and simple cocktails—done to the best of my ability—was all that needed to be done here.
No mixology allowed.
When you think of humble Mexican barbecue, you don't think of fancy drinks. You think of simple drinks, things like margaritas, Palomas, micheladas, and beer. I decided to "keg" our margarita in hopes of having a virtually never-ending supply of it for our droves of thirsty customers. We just want our place to be a neighborhood joint; often this means simplicity with the menu. You only have the urge to try experimental $15 cocktails for so long until you come back to the staples like simple, refreshing, $9 cocktails. People deserve a place where they can drink these kind of cocktails in every neighborhood.
Enter batch cocktails, a.k.a. cocktails that you see on the menu as "on draft." During our opening week this month, we served upward of 50 gallons of margaritas. We sold around 30 gallons of horchata during our first week. Aguas frescas are so versatile. At the end of the day, they are all virgin cocktails, if you think about it. All you have to do is add the correct booze!
Now, imagine if we would have had to shake each glass by hand? We would have definitely lost a lot of time, customers, and money. We knew our spot was going to serve hundreds every day, not dozens. Simply put: Making each drink by hand did not fit our bill. Not to mention that the restaurant is in Los Angeles and absolutely nobody has patience here. I have bartended and consulted at enough restaurants around California to know that people want things quick. If you can get a drink in someone's hand within the first five minutes of sitting at the table, they are more likely to keep ordering more drinks during their stay, which is the goal of any restaurant or bar. However, if they have to wait 20 minutes per drink, they are most likely going to think, "I don't have time to wait for another drink," and probably just order only one.
We make 30 liters of our alcoholic aguas frescas at a time. This doesn't mean that they taste inferior in any way. I taste every single batch before it is served. At first, not making every single cocktail to order was fucking with me, since it went against everything I was trained for. Working as a bartender and vigorously shaking drinks until frothy is all I ever did. However, I don't have a choice at Salazar, and I am OK with that.
You can still be meticulous with your drink techniques. We toast the long-grain jasmine rice for our horchata, let it sit overnight, and grind it, and then practically make a DIY rice milk with a nut milk bag before it arrives to its final form. My profit margin does take a hit because I refuse to use anything that is not freshly squeezed and of the highest quality. Slow and steady wins the race, after all. I am looking at longevity here, not a place to just make a quick buck.
If you look at batch cocktails from a consistency standpoint, this way of making drinks is almost foolproof, ensuring every single customer gets the drink as it is supposed to be, with very little space for human error. Also, you are keeping the cost down, since you don't depend on so many hands.
If you can find a better $9 margarita in this town, please do let me know. Like anything else, hospitality continues to grow. The time that you wait for a drink is evolving. People want craft cocktails and they want it now.
This is my way of adapting and making that happen.
As told to Javier Cabral
This interview was edited for length and clarity
Aaron Melendrez is the bar director for Salazar, a new Northern Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. For more information, visit the restaurant's website.