Article originally published in A Taste of AZ Magazine
Walking into BARCOA Agavería in Phoenix, there is a strange sense of being transported to a cantina in Jalisco, Mexico, which is exactly what the partners had envisioned. Housed in a 1928 historic building with an unassuming entrance off an alley, BARCOA—whose name refers to the tool that extracts agave from the ground—highlights the world of heritage agave spirits.
It is the brainchild of Dave Tyda and Ryan Oberholtzer, who serendipitously found three other partners with a deep-rooted passion for agave. “We tried hard to appreciate the [Mexican] culture without appropriating it. So much so that I am confident that when you walk through our doors, you will notice we did our best,” says Tyda.
In fact, all five partners bring something unique to the table. Tyda, who founded several food festivals—not the least of which is the Arizona Taco Festival—has the marketing expertise and an intense interest in the traditions of agave spirit production. Ryan Oberholtzer has a security business based in Guadalajara, Mexico, and founded Provecho in The Churchill. About Oberholtzer, Tyda says, “Mexico enters every sentence that he speaks. We all love Mexico, but he makes sure things are done correctly according to paying respect to Mexico and the Mexican culture.”
Tyda also brought in Grant Gardner, former owner of El Capitan in Flagstaff and judge at the taco festival. Gardner, an agave sommelier and master mezcalier, brings his extensive knowledge of agave spirits and relationships with the local producers. Nick Fiorini and Jourdain Blanchette (of Sidecar Social Club) developed and run what will likely become an award-winning cocktail program.
The team hired interior designer Paulina Hassel-Martinez from Guadalajara to create a two-level bar filled with custom-made items from Mexico. Upstairs, designed to represent a traditional cantina in Jalisco, light fixtures made from actual coas adorn the walls. Henequen rope—also known as sisal, another agave plant—separates the bar from XICO, an indigenous and Latinx art gallery studio with whom BARCOA shares the upper level. And the 20-foot-long wooden bar was made in Mexico, shipped to the states, and assembled in situ.
The cantina, as its name suggests, serves a classic cantina menu. As Tyda explains, “Upstairs we serve a Margarita the way a Margarita should be made, a Paloma the way a Paloma should taste.” Other items featured include the Batanga—tequila and coke poured in a pint glass and served with lime and a wooden-handled steak knife for mixing—and a Cantarito, a popular roadside cocktail from Jalisco of citrus, Squirt, and tequila served in a clay mug.
The downstairs basement of approximately 1500 square feet features several intimate seating areas centered around a stunning bar. Cattle skulls with Huichol bead art line the black painted walls and in the corner, surrounded by back-lit liquor bottles, a private tasting room beckons. Tyda and Oberholtzer had the vision the minute they saw the space, adding, “You just immediately knew it wanted to be a bar.”
The educational aspect of the bar program is part of BARCOA’s magic. The tastings are primarily self-guided; Tyda encourages customers to go on an “agave road trip” and try un poco de todo. “I always start a tasting with a pure blanco tequila because I want to get everyone oriented towards what agave should taste like.” Much like a wine dinner, Tyda will pop in and out, allowing guests to compare tasting notes. While BARCOA does not serve food, there are food trucks located in the parking lot Wednesday through Sunday, or they can cater in food from Provecho.
Tyda feels BARCOA stands apart from other bars in Phoenix in saying, “Where can you get together with 7-8 of your friends and have that kind of educational, fun drinking experience? I like to think we are creating something that is truly special that invites people to learn about what they are drinking and why it matters that you know about it. So much of what we pour is family owned and created in very rustic ways.”
In highlighting favorite tequilas to showcase in a tasting, Tyda has a few go-to’s, like Corrido, started in 2010 by local businessman, Brad Hoover, who interestingly sponsored the first taco festival. Hoover passed away shortly after launching Corrido, and restauranteur Brian Raab purchased the brand, hiring the original female master distiller, Ana Maria Moreno Romero Mena. Tyda likes to point out that Raab honors Brad Hoover by placing the initials BH on the back of the label. The leather bracelet and guitar pick accompanying the bottle pay homage to the balladeers famous for singing the romantic corridos for which the tequila is named.
For something on the unusual side, Tyda pours La Venenosa Raicilla Sierra del Tigre, a raicilla spirit made from agave Inaequidens that grows wild in coniferous forests 6,000 feet above sea level. Distilled in clay pots, this raicilla carries a strong flavor and scent of blue cheese and is typically served towards the end of the evening.
At 40 pages long, the basement bar menu is an “agave bible,” according to Tyda, as every spirit listed has 3-4 tasting notes and details on its origin. Fiorini and Blanchette spent countless hours developing the craft cocktail list. A fantastic pick is the Leche de Pistachio, with El Silencio Espadin mezcal, whose heavy smoke profile balanced the sweetness of pistachio flavored coconut milk.
Tyda emphasized the rare features of agave spirits in reminding me that, “Agave Mezcal is one of the last remaining untouched unindustrialized spirits that is, by and large, still produced the way it was hundreds of years ago in the middle of a forest by a few people creating it by hand.” This is certainly something worth toasting…salut!
BARCOA Agavería, Phoenix. 829 N. 1st Ave.
Inquiries for tequila tasting can be made through the website, www.barcoaphx.com
Looking for more Mexican food in the valley? Trust me, there are plenty of options. Read my latest post to discover some of the best Mexican restaurants in Phoenix, from authentic, family joints to newer, modern fusions.