Aspen Times Weekly: Oaxacan Week at Jimmy’s Spices Up Offseason

by Amanda Rae

Oaxacan Week (Nov. 1-17)

Jimmy’s: An American Restaurant

205 S. Mill St., Aspen

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THE ZAPOTEC people of southern Mexico have a saying: “You don’t find mezcal; mezcal finds you.” Jimmy Yeager shares this tidbit about tequila’s sultry cousin shortly before kicking off the biannual, offseason Oaxacan Week (Nov. 1-17) at Jimmy’s: An American Restaurant. As it turns out, that was precisely his experience.

“I have no recollection of when I first tasted them,” Yeager says of mezcal, sounding genuinely amazed. “I just know that when I opened [Jimmy’s, in 1997], I had four bottles on my back bar. They were new spirits: I had to find them and have them brought into Colorado. So, as far as I’m concerned, they did find me. It’s really strange.”

It’s no news flash that Jimmy’s 100-plus tequila collection is enviable — word has spread across the country thanks to regular features in national press and Yeager’s tasting seminars at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen for the last 16 years —but its 24 bottles of mezcal, that other agave spirit, might be even more impressive. Mezcal has been imported into the U.S. only in the past couple of decades, and the spirit has grown popular in just the last few years.

As tequila hails from the Jalicso region north of Mexico City, Oaxacan Week is showcasing mezcal, which is produced about 500 miles south of the state capital. But it can be a polarizing bar pick. “There’s a certain energy; some people have an immediate connection to the spirit,” Yeager says. “Some people don’t. They’re not for everyone. They’re strong, intensely flavored. Smoky is the go-to adjective, but in reality, what’s really there are flavors of the cooked earth.”

Yeager details mezcal’s long, layered production (see “Making Mezcal,” opposite page) with the precision of a distiller sharing his methods with an apprentice. Which makes sense, as the restaurateur travels nearly every year to Oaxaca to participate in the process with the Zapotec Native Americans. “I have a real strong affinity to Oaxaca,” Yeager says. “The culture, the mezcal, the food is some of the greatest I’ve ever had.”

For Oaxacan Week, Yeager has created three flights of three mezcals each ($15-24), served in copitas, or traditional clay cups. Flights focus on the Del Maguey brand, which kicked off Yeager’s obsession so boldly that owner Ron Cooper called out of the blue in 1997, awed that Jimmy’s had sold more bottles in seven months than all other outlets in the company’s three-year history. Not into the straight stuff? Ten-dollar specialty cocktails, such as a Smokey Margarita or the Vida Buena — a Mexican Negroni — offer an easy introduction. (A staff favorite is the off-menu Mezcal Mule.)

Naturally, Mexico native and Jimmy’s executive chef Manny Lopez is serving classic Oaxacan cuisine: poblano pepper stuffed with imported quesillo cheese and spicy salsa, pork loin roasted in adobo over a vegetable-fruit medley, and, of course, the region’s quintessential dish: chicken mole.

“I come from Veracruz, which is neighbors with Oaxaca,” says Lopez, who also spent time in the nearby city of Puebla. “They are all rich in the tradition of mole, but each has a unique approach. The base is similar; what changes is the chiles and the addition — or not — of chocolate.”

True to Oaxacan-style mole negro, Lopez’s secret recipe blends at least three kinds of dark chiles and omits chocolate; spices, nuts, tortilla and a splash of mezcal are some of the other 15-plus ingredients in the decadent, slow-simmered sauce, which cloaks tender pieces of roasted chicken.

Dessert is an autumn favorite south of the border: thick wedges of Mexican pumpkin coated with cane sugar and canella, roasted until decadently soft and caramelized, accompanied by housemade ginger frozen yogurt, crushed pepitas, and a honey-lavender-soaked chip of toasted bread.

“Canella is from Mexico, and has a spicier finish,” Lopez explains. “Even though we’re using local produce, we want to use authentic spices. When we talk about ‘An American Restaurant,’ we (mean) the entire Americas, not just to the border of the U.S. Salsa and tango nights are big here. We like to celebrate things that have very deep roots, even though we’re far away.”

In an ever-evolving dining landscape, Jimmy’s is an Aspen landmark. “We use the quiet time to re-establish relationships with locals,” Yeager says. “During the high seasons some people are too busy or don’t want to fight the crowds. We won’t see certain locals in the winter, then we see them in April/May and October/November.” (Thai Week, which returns in the spring, is another hit with regulars.)

It’s only fitting that Jimmy’s complete experience of food and drink indigenous to Oaxaca follows Mexico’s most beloved celebration, Dia de los Muertos (Oct. 31 to Nov. 2).

“On any major holiday, mole will be present,” Lopez says. “It’s not a quick whip, so people see it as something important.”

Offseason in Aspen certainly counts as a major holiday, si?

Mezcal found Amanda Rae in San Miguel de Allende last offseason. What’s your story?

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