Article By: Fred Bouchard
Max Toste doesn’t like junk food or rotgut booze. For his side-by-side bars – Deep Ellum and Lone Star Taco Bar, nestled in Union Square, Allston – he handpicks every bottle (beer, wine, tequila, mezcal) and creates most of the dishes with Chef Rian Wyllie.
Sitting with Max above the dark-wood Deep Ellum, he riffs on the evolution of Lone Star – the glistening zinc and glass band-box next door. “We’d had this idea for a long time about a place that served Mexican street food, tequila and mezcal. I grew up in Southern California and I’ve been to Mexico a bunch of times. When I was playing bass in a band they called me the Max-ican, because I’d find the best Mexican restaurant on the road. We’re a mixed crew here: my business partner Aaron Sanders hails from Dallas, and our GM Dave Cagle is from Arkansas. When Aaron and I were in Chicago we visited Big Star and were impressed with the way they ran it: good tacos, tequila, whiskey, fresh juice. It was the kind of place we’d been thinking about and it inspired us. Then this space next-door opened up.”
Thus Lone Star spun off from the parent bar Deep Ellum. But the bigger story is the emergence of the mezcal category into the Northeast. All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. However, mezcal’s been as nearly as big a drink in the West and Southwest as tequila for some time, and Lone Star is actively ptomoting it in Boston with a list dedicated to brands that hew exclusively to the purity of the indigenous, artisanal beverages.
“I love mezcal as a very distinctive product,” says Toste. “I’ve been selling Pierde Almas and Del Maguey at Deep Ellum since they came to our market. It’s more interesting than tequila, though I love them both. The quality of distillation is all I care about when I place a product on my shelves. And I’m noticing a marked – even ironic – disparity between the quality of packaging and the quality of product. The mass-produced industrial-level product is commonly being put in to very sexy bottles.” Toste quickly heats up over the notion of companies marketing sizzle over steak. “Conscientious tequila producers often put their products in simple bottles: Chinaco, El Tesoro, Tequila Ocho. El Tesoro makes their tequila by roasting blue agave in traditional ovens but then they employ the tojone,
a shallow pit with a giant stone dragged by donkey, horse or tractor, then hand shredded and placed into open oak vats to ferment. Now, that’s traditional tequila! All the mezcals and most traditional tequilas that we sell use that method. I want to bring in all the mezcals that are worth having (3O) and tequilas that are handpicked (about 65, from 2O producers).
“But there’s an inverse correlation among others who use sexy packages to present mass-produced tequilas. They steam the agave in autoclaves, shred them in machines, then ferment it in propagated yeast, rather than spontaneously. I’m passionate about not paying for people’s ad campaigns; when tasting and buying spirits, my bullshit detector is on alert. As soon as I smell acetone and fusel oil . . . I balk.”
Geography, or terroir, also plays a significant role in assessing traditional agave beverages. Nearly all the artisanal tequilas come from the highlands of Jalisco; Toste prefers the fruitier and richer flavor profile. Lowland tequilas tend toward leanness and minerality. “The only lowland tequila I sell is Partida; that’s down where the big boys are – Cuervo, Patron, Don Julio. Good highland tequilas like El Tesoro show strong terroir, with lots of minerals and fruit; Partida speaks well for the lowland style – austere, minerally, dry.”
Lone Star’s tidy menu reflects and highlights the rustic, rough-hewn agave drinks: no composed plates, no entrees, just tacos, served up like tapas – simple street food. Agave’s natural acidity cleanses and refreshes the palate. “It makes you salivate, and want to eat food,” says Toste. “Wine has it, too. Hoppy beers are good, but not a big sweet stout. Not whiskey, either.” The menu emerged as a natural fit to acquired tastes. “A couple of years ago I got into the habit of making tacos for the staff at pre-meal. I’d get some masa harina, make tortillas, make some chorizo at the bodega, make queso fresco, chop up cilantro and pickled jalapeños. Staff would say, ‘Damn, you can’t get tortillas like this in Boston!’ This was not home-cooking – I’m mostly Portuguese from Tiverton, Rhode Island – it’s just that I’ve loved this food all my life.
“We make fresh tortillas in-house, up to 8OO a day. We do it right: masa harina cut with salt and water, a hand tortilla press, wrapped in a warm towel next to the grill. We cut and fry bought tortilla chips for our salsa and chips. We use a lot of chilies, but the food is well-seasoned, with layers of flavor, not hot. We cook Mexican, using a whole bunch of ground chilies. Our Austin-style bean-free Tex-Mex chili con carne uses dried chilies (ancho, chipotle, jalapeño, habañero, Aleppo), cumin, thyme, dried herbs and spices, a little tomato juice, beer, and plenty of hand-cut chuck.”
Mezcal makes an appearance in one Lone Star dessert – the egg flan. Chef Joe Boisvert dresses it with a garnish of mezcal, cashews and chili. You can go for classic combinations, too, like blanco with fish taco and añejo with chocolate.
“Consistency,” Max concludes, “is our greatest challenge: we’ll start with quality and end with quality. We taste everything all the time. I have no ‘next project’ and no ‘concept’. I want to love what I taste!”
THE GLASS BREAKDOWN
Max Toste has mixed views on proper mescal drinkware. “The tasting copitas that producer Del Maguey’s owner Ron Cooper gives away are half-dollar-sized shallow cups made of terra cotta similar to those that mezcaleros use to sample distillations. I don’t recommend drinking out of them as a regular vessel if you’re used to mezcal, as they emphasize minerality and earthiness, but downplay the appealing acidity. I prefer – and recommend to seasoned enthusiasts – to drink mezcal out of a double old-fashioned glass. It dissipates the alcohol and emphasizes the fruit and mineral. A snifter focuses the alcohol too much.”