Those in the industry who’ve known Elmer Mejicanos over the years often call him the busiest bartender in the business. Indeed, as an 18-year veteran of the San Francisco cocktail scene, Mejicanos has quietly put his stamp on bar menus across San Francisco and beyond. By his own admission, he’s always had two or three projects going on at once, which is why he continues to design drink menus at restaurants like Elephant Sushi and remains a consulting bar manager at 25 Lusk. But now, as a partner at Red Window and Causwells in San Francisco, Mejicanos’s drinks are front and center.
At Red Window, the drinks take on a different tone, instead highlighting low-proof cocktails — a first for Mejicanos. “I didn’t see it as an obstacle, I actually saw it as an opportunity,” he says. “‘How can I push myself to create great drinks, without the things that I already know in the back of my head, like the usual flavor profiles I already have?’” The cocktail menu there features 27 drinks employing sherries, vermouths, and aperitivos, such as the Shot in the Dark, using Alvear Oloroso, Cappelletti, Carpano Antica, cocoa nib, vanilla, and bitters. These drinks landed the pie-shaped restaurant on several lists of the best cocktail bars in the city, something Mejicanos is proud of given that most bar programs on those lists have the full range of alcohol at their disposal, unlike Red Window, which holds a beer and wine license only. He knew it could be a difficult sell to those who may consider sherry old-fashioned, but he’s managed to change minds.
Mejicanos began his bartending career like many do, as a busser and then a barback, starting first at Beach Chalet, then Joe DiMaggio’s in North Beach (once located at the current Original Joe’s location at Union and Stockton streets). Mejicanos learned from old-school bartenders in that neighborhood, picking up slow shifts before working his way up to bar manager in just six months. From there, he helped open Oakland’s Lake Chalet and Picán, before ending up at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. For 11 years, Mejicanos helped open bars for Tony’s restaurant group, including Capo’s Pizza and Pizza Rock in Vegas, on top of making appearances at Science of the Cocktail at the Exploratorium and producing drinks at a 3D-printed bar in Oakland.
But it was at Tony’s that Mejicanos really developed his own style of drinks, concocting a new bar menu every three months and earning mentions in Esquire and USA Today. “The bar was considered one of the best bars in this neighborhood just based on quality and how interesting we kept it,” Mejicanos says. “Because Tony comes up with some crazy pizza creations and I needed to keep up with the creativity that was happening in the kitchen.” At Tony’s, he was able to pick his own path and had the freedom to invent new drinks, with new ingredients, like a riff on an old fashioned using sorghum, with sorghum popcorn as garnish. “I was able to do crazy shit like that because he understood that, at the end of the day, it was my passion and I wanted to evolve it into something,” Mejicanos says.
What really helps Mejicanos stand out from the crowd is the attention to detail; whether it be a cocktail menu that pairs well with fine dining (as it does at 25 Lusk), sashimi at Elephant Sushi, Southern food, Spanish tapas, or a New American bistro — the first consideration is how a drink pairs. Mejicanos’s style focuses on flavor while being innovative and playful, whether that be through intriguing garnishes or using sapote and Oaxacan coffee to infuse drinks, as he did at the now-closed Traveler bar at 25 Lusk. Mejicanos often considers presentation first, including glassware and the ice, before working backward into the drink itself. He also watches the innovation taking place with chefs and pastry chefs, rather than other bartenders, to see what touches they’re implementing, like foams or other molecular gastronomy techniques.
Mejicanos enjoys deep dives into ingredients that intrigue him, whether that be a certain vinegar or some other food, like the ube halaya a general manager at Red Window introduced him to. Mulling over that item led to the playfully named Ube-tter Bee-Lieve It at Causwells, using gin, cinnamon and pineapple vinegar, a clarified ube golden milk, and lemon, topped with ube foam that melts into the drink. The Deconstructed Pimms Cup, meanwhile, features cold-pressed cucumber and strawberry pressed into spherical ice cubes, keeping the drink cold while maintaining its flavor. The Cantélope Cruz, another play on words, uses cantaloupe, vodka, Lillet Blanc, honey, ricotta, and lemon, with a hearty grind of black pepper on top.
Already, Mejicanos and chef-partner Adam Rosenblum are looking to the future, with more plans for new restaurants on the horizon. “I think one of my biggest passions is to be creative — it’s something that comes fairly easy to me because I love new things,” Mejicanos says. “I refuse to do boring things. I think life’s too short for boring cocktails.”