Criollo Hand Crafted Latin Inspired Local Food Restaurant and Bar Flagstaff, AZ
The food is reliably tasty, drawing its inspiration from a sense of Latin fusion, and local, sustainably harvested ingredients. The upside of life in the Southwestern United States includes extended growing seasons, while also land locking us out of other items for local harvest. As a result, the menu at Criollo adjusts to these various needs to celebrate a blend of offerings that readily stretch across the year, with other seasonally determined foods, and a few treats flown in (like their cornmeal+coconut, instead of batter, rolled calamari).
The wine list at Criollo remains consistent with the Latin inspired focus, showcasing wines from across South America along with others from Spain or Portugal.
For those wanting only food for lighter fare, or just a drink, Criollo also showcases what turn out to be honestly some of the best bartenders in Flagstaff, as well as a bar stocked with quality liquors.
Getting to Know Criollo’s Bar: House-made Bitters, and Barrel Aged Tequila
* House-made Barrel Aged Tequila
Several months ago, Paul, the owner of Criollo, tasted barrel aged tequila and decided to invest in bringing the flavor to his Flagstaff bar. Seeing I was unsure how much difference the process would offer, Jeremy, one of Criollo’s bartenders offered me a before and after taste.
The bottle Republic Tequila offered flavors of citrus and cactus (we in the Southwest really do know what cactus tastes like, in case that sounds ridiculous to any of you–it’s a kind of pithy green, very lightly sweet touched, mild dirt, hint of bramble flavor), with a dusty heat.
To age their tequila, the bar has brought in a barrel originally used for aging bourbon. After acquiring the barrel they soaked it with water for several weeks, before then draining it and filling it with Republic Tequila.
The barrel aged tequila had significantly changed from its bottled sibling. The flavors had deepened and taken on earthier elements, with a woody character plus cinnamon and spice notes.
* House-made Bitters
Jeremy Meyer, Bar Co-Manager, Criollo
Criollo’s Bar showcases a selection of fine and flavored tequilas, plus a range of good quality cachaca (I love cachaca and its beloved capirihina), along with quality versions of more traditional liquors. In order to better celebrate the subtler flavor offerings of cachaca and tequila, bartender and bar co-manager, Jeremy Meyer, decided to begin exploring and studying mixed drink recipes that would show them off.
A traditional bar ingredient for cocktails like the Manhattan or Dark & Handsome is an herbal bitter to push against the sweet or syrupy elements of the liquor base. The herbal flavor of bitters like Angostura is desirable in darker flavored mixed drinks, like the Manhattan, but often works against the lighter notes of an alcohol like cachaca or tequila. So, Jeremy decided to begin making in house bitters from other ingredients that would be more flexible at the bar, and work alongside those lighter spirits.
The basic process for making bitters, Jeremy explains, consists of first selecting flavor ingredients and then soaking them in high alcohol booze like Everclear for approximately a month. At the end of the month the resulting product is drained and sometimes enhanced with other flavors.
Currently Criollo utilizes four types of house-made bitters most primarily–strawberry with black tea; ancho chili with tamarind; black pepper with black currant; and mesquite with pineapple. Additionally, Jeremy has also made orange with anise; and cherry with grapefruit peel. As summer progresses he intends to experiment with using other ingredients found at the local Farmer’s Market.
I asked Jeremy to select his favorite summer cocktail made from in house ingredients. He chose their Barrel Punch, and shared the recipe.
A Treat From Jeremy: The Barrel Punch, a Mixed Drink Recipe
The Barrel Punch, Criollo, Flagstaff
The Barrel Punch
1 1/2 ounces House-made Barrel Aged Tequila
3/4 ounce Blackberry Balsamic Shrub (explanation follows)
4 dashes House-made Mesquite-Pineapple Bitters (explanation follows)
A squeeze of Lime
Fill the glass with soda water, then box (move between glass and shaker and back again). Pour into glass.
Top with 3 drops of Rose Water.
The Barrel Punch is a fresh, light, rich flavored, and not sweet cocktail that works beautifully for summer. It offers a light fruit and wood flavored opening, with a fruit vinegar mid-palate, and a fruit tang light rose finish. Though the flavors here are rich, the drink avoids any syrupy or too-sweet characteristics that would make it too heavy for summer. I very much enjoyed it.
Blackberry Balsalmic Shrub
As Jeremy explains, a shrub is an old fashioned way to preserve fruit. The fruit is smashed into sugar, then the resulting syrup is drained and mixed with vinegar. Here the shrub is made with equal parts fruit, sugar, and vinegar, with blackberries, and a blend of 1/2 balsamic vinegar 1/2 apple cider vinegar.
To really push the envelope, Jeremy decided to try making bitters with safe ingredients that aren’t traditionally thought of in relation to food.
The mesquite-pineapple bitters were made by soaking wood chips and pineapple in a blend of 1/2 Everclear 1/2 tequila for a month. At the end of the month the resulting drink was strained. Then, Jeremy grilled mesquite wood chips (the same kind soaked to make the bitters), put them out in the bitters themselves to add an ashen smoke element, then restrained the entire concoction, and finally added agave syrup to help bring out the pineapple flavors without adding genuine sweetness.
Finally (for now) the Bar Expands: House-made Tonic, and Vermouth
As if Criollo wasn’t already offering a host of house-made bar options, they are also making in house tonic and vermouth. Both focus on utilizing the ingredients available here in Flagstaff, including those brought in to the area by the local herbal shop, Winter Sun. Jeremy explained that in developing the following recipes Winter Sun’s owner and long time herbalist, Phyllis, was very helpful.
The tonic results from a mix of Peruvian bark powder, lemon grass, agave syrup, coriander, and lemon/lime zest and juice.
The vermouth is a local favorite. Jeremy explains he researched a typical recipe for making the spirit only to discover a number of the ingredients simply were not readily available in our small mountain town. He addressed the problem by simply adjusting to utilize local plants and herbs as substitute. Criollo’s house vermouth, as a result, draws on the flavors of Ocho root (good for the lungs), Juniper berries (a diuretic and good for fighting infection), and Mormon tea (a decongestant and stimulant), along with the more traditional elements of basil, rosemary, thyme, and citrus zest. It’s fabulous (and I’ve never been huge on mainstream vermouth). It turns out Phyllis is also a fan, even having been a bit skeptical of Jeremy’s plans originally.
For those of you in Flagstaff, get in to Criollo to try the unique offerings at their bar. For those of you visiting the area, definitely keep Criollo on your list of places to enjoy.
Criollo Latin Kitchen, 16 N San Francisco, Flagstaff, AZ 86001 928-774-0541 http://criollolatinkitchen.com/
Thank you to Criollo, Hillary Wamble, and Jeremy Meyer for inviting me to taste Jeremy’s bitters, and Criollo’s other house-made offerings.
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