Features Latin Street Food & Cocktail Pairings
Food and Drink from the Barrio: Cocktail Pairings Go South of the Border at New York’s Macondo
June 2009

At New York City’s Macondo, Chef Máximo Tejada’s menu is designed to pair the kitchen’s colorful Latin American fare with the eclectic cocktails served at the restaurant’s bar.

“It’s something we always do. Lots of times we’ll fall in love with an item or with an idea; we always talk to the head bartender and work together to create cocktails that can be mixed and matched with different [dishes],” explains Tejada, a Dominican Republic native whose “Freestyle Latino” cuisine dresses up many of the dishes he ate during his travels through South America and time in Puerto Rico.

Macondo’s cocktails are part brainchild of in-house bartender Amaury Robayo and part creation by Mixologist Junior Merino, founder of The Liquid Chef mixology consulting firm. Typically both the kitchen and the bar will sit down for a week of tastings to calibrate the restaurant’s food and drink offerings, tinkering with recipes on both sides until a harmony of flavors is reached.

“It’s a collaborative process; we try to build off each other mutually,” Tejada says.

Placing a heavy emphasis on the balance and harmony of cocktail pairings, Merino takes his cues from Tejada’s kitchen, creating complementary cocktails that oftentimes feature the same ingredients as the dishes.

“With cocktails, you don’t want to consume something that is way too strong and is going to dull the taste buds because then, by the time [guests] taste their food, they won’t be able to enjoy the food’s complexity,” Merino says, explaining that overly sour cocktails can have a similar effect, while very sweet drinks may make diners feel full. “There must be just the right amount of citrus because citrus can help you open your appetite. So we think of all of those aspects before we pair a cocktail with food.”

Aside from these basic rules, Merino—who is of Mexican descent—has a special pairing philosophy when it comes to Latin American food and cocktail pairings.

“If you give me Mexican food, which is a little spicy, with a sweet drink, it’s perfect,” Merino says. “The sweetness puts out the fire from the pepper…they complement each other.”

For example, Tejada’s slightly spicy, Asian-inspired salmon ceviche dish, Hojas de Salmon, is paired with Merino’s Aguacate & Mezcal cocktail, which contains natural sweeteners honey and agave nectar. Likewise, Robayo pairs the restaurant’s spicy Bacalaitos—crispy cod fritters with guindilla aioli—with a sweet Fresa & Pisco cocktail.

When it comes to meat dishes, Merino says certain alcohols pair better with certain proteins.

“One of the things I like to pair with meat is whiskey; it goes so well, especially when there are spices,” explains Merino, who pairs his Guava & Whiskey cocktail with Tejada’s Almondegas—Brazilian-style beef meatballs with guava sauce and Tetilla cheese. “Here you have a broader spectrum of what you can use [in a cocktail] because you’re not dealing with a sweet or spicy dish. It’s much more approachable.”

Merino also likes pairing gin with any white meat, hence his Zanahoria & Gin cocktail accompaniment for Tejada’s Willianco (oven-roasted quail, spinach, figs and Manchego cheese).

“The gin is so delicate, it goes beautifully with the quail,” Merino says. “The cocktail has fresh carrot juice, a touch of pineapple juice, orange liquor and G’vine Floraison Gin—just imagine all of those ingredients on top of the quail. That would be an amazing combination.”

An obvious plus of featuring cocktail pairings as a part of any restaurant’s menu is the added revenue generated through alcohol purchases. In a touch-and-go economy, this can help make up the difference for lowered food prices and keep clients coming back for more.

“People now know more and are a lot more demanding,” says Amaury Robayo, Macondo’s in-house mixologist. “When you have a sip of a cocktail and take a bite of food, if they’re both very well-balanced, you’ll want more and more.”