Pairing wine, beer, and cocktails with Mexican food

Finding the right pairings for our Mexican meal was a lot of fun. And also a bit challenging. Personally, when I think Mexican, I don’t think haute cuisine. I think street food and una cerveza. So my default mode of pairing wine to anything and everything doesn’t necessarily work (and it’s a habit I should break myself of anyway). Mexican food and wine can work, but for a number of dishes, it certainly isn’t the best option. There are lots of tasty beer and cocktail options you should be considering instead.

Seared scallop with avocado cream and pickled radish salad
There were a lot of options for the scallops. They have a very mild flavor lending themselves to lots of different things.  A very obvious choice is a white wine, perhaps a German riesling or Champagne.  In both cases, acidity and a little bit of sweetness would be a great contrast to the salinity of the scallop.  (Because of the mild flavors, you want to stay away from oaked wines – they’ll overpower the flavors of the scallop pretty rapidly.)

However, that’s all a bit too obvious.

We decided to venture off into the less-expected cocktail arena for this one. Taking a cue from the classic pairing of fish tacos and margaritas, we developed this refreshing, vibrantly green drink that complements the delicate sweetness of the scallop and delivers a hint of heat on the finish:

1 ounce St. George Spirits Agua Azul tequila reposado
1/4 ounce Hangar One chipotle vodka
2 ounces honeydew agua fresca

Make the honeydew agua fresca by pureeing honeydew melon chunks in a food processor. Strain twice using a fine-mesh metal sieve to get rid of the pulp.

Combine the ingredients in a shaker, fill with ice, and shake. Serve over a single whiskey ice cube in short glasses with chile salt rim.

Rice and beans
We knew from the beginning that we wanted to echo the everyman nature of rice and beans by pairing it with a beer. Our version of the dish incorporated a variety of unusual flavors (the beans were stewed in a thickened sangrita broth made with tomato, orange, and chile) and textures (we topped the warm, soft beans with both puffed rice and crunchy fried brown rice grains)–but the basic flavor was the same as the classic.

In the name of research (ahem!), we bellied up to the bar at Monk’s Kettle. Our kindly bartender seemed enthusiastic about the challenge and poured us a couple of saisons and IPAs to try. They all seemed like solid contenders–but then he had a bolt of inspiration. Hitachino Red Rice Ale! (It wasn’t available at Monk’s that night, but BevMo carries it.)

It was a perfect match. The beer is crisp rather than hoppy, and its subtle fruitiness complemented our sangrita broth beautifully. The mellow rice undertone echoed the toasty flavors in the dish.

“Masa ball soup”  (round pork tamales with salsa roja and posole broth)

This pairing actually started with the beer rather than the food. After enjoying a pint of the Ocho Negro Black IPA at the Deschutes Brewery in Portland, Jeanne knew she wanted to create a dish that would complement its smooth, roasty character. It turned out that Ocho Negro is only available on tap at the brewery–but 21st Amendment, just up the street from us in San Francisco, makes Back in Black. Convenient.

Black IPAs tend to be way less bitter than the traditional IPA hop bomb. This one struck a perfect balance between dark, chocolatey notes of de-bittered black malt and the refreshing bite of Columbus, Centennial, and Simcoe hops. These flavors worked as a foil to the deep meaty flavors in the posole broth and the bright red chile in the tamale.

Pork belly and mole negro
We had some debate over what to pair with the mole. Mole is tricky. It is slightly sweet, but charred, with a bit of spiciness to it. Ultimately we were very happy with our choice of the Benanti Rovittello, but how did we decide on an Italian red with mole?? Well, it’s a bit of a process of elimination:

  • White or red? Red. Darker red fruit flavors are needed to stand up against the intense flavors of the mole. Most whites would get lost in the mix.
  • Tannins or no tannins? No or very fine tannins. They’ll fight with the mole. You’ve already got some astringent texture from the mole, so you want something which can clear the palate and contrast the texture of what you’ve eaten. Otherwise, you’ll be reaching for your water instead.
  • Low or high acid? High acid to cut through the mole.
  • Old world or new world? We definitely want fruit. Subtlety will be lost against this dish. One could easily go for a new world Grenache or even a fruit forward Spanish. Italian is also an option here.

Ultimately I chose the Benanti out of personal preference. If I’m going to go with a more fruit forward wine, I still want it to have some old world feel. And this one had not only the fruit and acidity, but also a bit of earthiness on the nose to bring out the charred peppers in the mole.

Gingerbread with spiced chocolate consomme and persimmon granita
Tokaji is the immediate thing that comes to mind here. Its golden, honey flavors would be a wonderful complement to the warm gingerbread, the persimmon, and spiced hot chocolate.

K&L even had an amazing Tokaji in stock: the 1993 Chateau Pajzos 5 Puttonyos. Unfortunately for our guests, we drank the last bottle of it for “testing purposes.” It was amazing, full of peach and honey and coconut macaroons. If you find this wine, buy it. (I ordered the rest of the K&L stock, but it didn’t arrive in time).

Thankfully, there was another delicious Tokaji in stock: the 2001 Hétszölö Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos. It also had all the characteristic flavors and textures of a great Tokaji and worked wonderfully.