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In Quickly Gentrifying Highland Park, a Bar That Highlights Women and Mexican-Owned Spirits

7:46 AM PST on February 19, 2021

    [dropcap size=big]G[/dropcap]race Pérez wants to know two things when sourcing her mezcal and tequila for the bar at Nativo, a new Guadalajara-inspired cantina in Highland Park.

    “One, are they Mexican-owned? And two, do they give fair wages and take care of their workers?”

    In the bottle or on draft, Pérez wants to keep her drinks craft, local, Mexican, and labor-conscious. On rotating taps, she pours local beer from Eagle Rock and Brewjería or a craft brew from Colima. She gets fresh ginger and beet juices made down the street at Jugos Azteca. And she serves mezcales and tequilas made by collectives run by mujeres in Oaxaca and Jalisco who create jobs for local women and share profits with their jimadores, or agave farmers.

    As bar manager and beverage director, Pérez keeps Nativo’s shelves well-stocked with Mexican spirits produced by smaller distillers who practice environmental and economic sustainability. She has a special knack for finding mezcales and tequilas produced by “mujeres del maguey,” or collectives of women working in Mexico to produce the finest, small-batch mezcales and tequilas in the land.

    Grace Peréz. Photo by Melissa M. Hidalgo for L.A. Taco.

    Her signature cocktails have become to-go favorites in in NELA, and now they can be enjoyed Wednesdays through Sundays on the new eatery’s beautiful back patio.

    From Veracruz to Highland Park

    Pérez joined Nativo as a seasoned bartender who learned her craft in L.A. and east coast bars. She landed her first job at CaCao Mexicatessen, a taquería and cantina in Eagle Rock that specializes in house-made margaritas, mojitos, and micheladas. Pérez honed her skills in the conservative college town of New Haven, Connecticut, where she moved with her husband who attended Yale. Pérez recalls bartending during rowdy Harvard-Yale football games—good practice for the “Jarocha” from East L.A. despite the sea of red MAGA hats surrounding her in the bar when working in the east coast.

    After five years in New Haven, Pérez returned to Los Angeles and worked at the Eagle Rock Public House until the pandemic shut it down permanently in November 2020. Pérez credits Ting Su and her Women’s Beer Forum at Eagle Rock Brewery for sparking her interest in creating women-centered projects at Nativo. 

    Agave liquors at Nativo. Photo by Melissa M. Hidalgo for L.A. Taco.

    “Women tend to be overlooked or not marketed to,” says Pérez about the beverage industry, particularly when it comes to beer and spirits. Owners Corissa Hernandez and husband Gabriel Paredes, who also run the Mexican beer bar Xelas in Boyle Heights, encouraged her visions.

    When they hired Pérez, Hernandez and Paredes gave her the freedom to create programs like the recent “Mujeres de Maguey + Tapas Flight” virtual event. It featured tapas made by Nativo’s resident chef, Danielle Duran-Secca, and three maguey spirits—two mezcales and a tequila—made by women-run distilleries in Mexico. Both weekends sold out, affirming the local demand for women’s spaces that provide booze education and enjoyment.

    Along with local sheroes like Su, Pérez also cites her parents—especially her mama—as key influences on her mixology style and practice. “My parents embedded our Veracruz and Mexican culture into us,” Pérez tells L.A. TACO. “My father is a hunter and still speaks his family’s indigenous language of Veracruz (Náhuatl). We’d go on these trips, and the flavors my mom would create using spices and peppers really stuck with me.”

    She’s working on an esquite cocktail using a cacahuazintle whiskey, which is made in Chihuahua from the heirloom corn noted for its large kernels.

    Her parents also introduced her to drinks like tepache, a fermented drink made from pineapple rinds and piloncillo, and pulque, Mexico’s pre-conquest (read: pre-beer) fermented beverage made from fermented maguey that is older than mezcal and tequila. Pérez makes her own tepache for mixing with tequila, mezcal, and her own bitters for “Sleep Now in the Fire,” one of her creations for Nativo.

    Photo courtesy of Nativo.

    “I learned from my parents and my mom’s cooking that Mexico has beautiful and amazing ingredients that would be so good in cocktails,” said Pérez.

    Based on her list of cocktail specialties, she’s right. 

    Mi Barrio, El Rey

    “I like to showcase Mexican spirits,” says Pérez, noting that Mexico also makes rum, whiskey, and even a Campari-like liquor using a pomegranate base in addition to its better-known agave-based spirits.

    These are the backbone of Pérez’s beverage program at Nativo. Pérez’s encyclopedic knowledge of Mexican flavors and beverages, and the libations they inspire, distinguish her signature cocktails from others around town. For example, she’s working on an esquite cocktail using a cacahuazintle whiskey, which is made in Chihuahua from the heirloom corn noted for its large kernels.

    The art inside Nativo. Photo by Melissa M. Hidalgo for L.A. Taco.

    A popular drink at Nativo is Pérez’s riff on an old fashioned called “El Rey,” after the song. “We use the cacahuazintle whisky. I make a piloncillo syrup with canela and chile de árbol. We use cacao for some mole notes, and a dehydrated orange wedge to hold the smoking canela stick.”

    Other drinks, such as “Mi Barrio,” remind Pérez of candies and sweets she ate as a kid. It also features the Mexican corn whiskey, chile ancho liquor, tamarindo syrup, and chile salt. Nativo also features a cocktail made with Yola mezcal and beet juice from Jugos Azteca.

    Pérez favors Yola mezcal for mixing. “I recommend Yola to the gin drinker who wants to explore mezcal,” says the bartender. “I love the blend of the espadín. There’s a nice, bright minerality to the Yola mezcal and you can really play with it.” At Nativo, Pérez mixes Yola with a green chartreuse and a California-made aloe vera for “De Música Ligera,” a refreshing elixir made for lazy afternoons and happy hours.

    Mujeres de Maguey

    “Strong Woman. Strong Drink.” The words splash across the promotional video for Yola Mezcal, one of several “female brands” of Mexican spirits stocked by Pérez. Others include La Gritona, a “green” tequila distillery owned and run by women. Their sustainable tequila operation uses stainless steel stills instead of copper. La Gritona donates their agave remnants to local farmers as feed, and each bottle for tequila is made out of recycled Coca-Cola bottles.

    ...hiring women to make mezcal is not just some marketing gimmick, but an actual commitment to supporting women in the industry up and down the supply chain.

    The crown jewel of Pérez’s bar is a small batch mezcal crafted by master mezcalera Berta Vasquez for Rezpiral, a small, sustainable, fair trade project that shares 30% of its profits with their jimadores. Vasquez’s farm is in San Baltazar Chichicapam, Oaxaca, and her mezcales are special. Rezpiral also supports the well-known mezcalera Reina Sanchez in San Luis Amatlan, Oaxaca. 

    “I wish we could have them behind the bar all the time here,” marvels Pérez, who mentions that Vasquez and Sanchez are main reasons she chose Rezpiral for her bar program. “They support and give back to the mezcaleros to help with their farms. They gave 10% of a profit share to Berta so she can have her own little espadín farm.”

    Rezpiral and others show that hiring women to make mezcal is not just some marketing gimmick, but an actual commitment to supporting women in the industry up and down the supply chain. For this reason, they hold a special place on Pérez’s menu. “There are other mezcales I’ll use for mixed drinks, but Rezpiral is special. We don’t want to mix it. It’s definitely a sipper.”  

    Open Again

    Nativo was open for all of nine days in November 2020 before L.A. County pandemic restrictions shut its colorful doors for everything but take-out. Outdoor dining has resumed in L.A. County, and the new restaurant can welcome guests again to its eye-catching sitting area off York Boulevard.

    Pérez will be there, ready to shake up a “Suavecita” mezcal ensemble cocktail or pour a fresh cerveza for you.

    5137 York Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90042

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