BY MAT WEIR
If you’re looking for quality taquerias, then Santa Cruz and its surrounding areas already have you covered. Let’s face it, if you can’t find a burrito or taco in town then you clearly aren’t really trying all that hard. But what about high quality, diverse, Mexican food that expands beyond something wrapped in a tortilla casing?
Search no further than the corner of Mission Street and Laurel where Copal Oaxacan Cuisine and Mezcal Bar is now seating for outdoor dining. Originally slated to open last April, the Covid-19 pandemic delayed those plans until July. Since the summer, Copal–which is an idigenous Oaxacan tree–has weathered the many challenges the restaurant industry faced throughout the year, but more on that later.
Richly inspired spices, crispy masa, fresh vegetables and savory meats can all be found at this restaurant that specializes in the flavors and culture of the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
“Even though there are other good Mexican restaurants in Santa Cruz, we felt that there was room for this because it’s so unique,” says Copal co-owner, Noelle Antonlin. “The idea of having Mexican food that’s regional and different from some of the other offerings.”
Antonlin and her partner, Copal co-owner, Stuyvie Bearns Esteva say the idea is a culmination of several years worth of work that originally began in the old Front Street Kitchen where Mutari Chocolate House now stands. They used the kitchen to create food for their other Santa Cruz venture-turned-staple–downtown’s Lupulo Craft Beer House–when they met the main ingredient to Copal’s delectable dishes, chef Ana Mendoza, in 2014.
Esteva, who is originally from Mexico, and Antonlin say they hit it off with Mendoza over their love for the country, particularly Oaxacan food and culture. A native Oaxacan, Mendoza says she originally came to Santa Cruz because of the opportunity it provided her family.
“I had family living here at the time, like my brother and husband,” she writes to ESC in an email. “And they always talked about the great things and many opportunities Santa Cruz offered.”
|Antonlin says they quickly became friends when Mendoza shared with her and Esteva her dream of opening a restaurant in the area. The idea quickly grew on the Lupulo owners and they began premiering Mendoza’s recipes for their “Night in Oaxaca” pop-ups at the beer house. Patrons fell in love, particularly with Mendoza’s signature Mole Coloradito–made with chile ancho, chocolate, cinnamon, raisins, almonds, hierba santa and more–and her sinfully dark, deeply roasted Mole Negro, with ancho, hierba santa, chocolate and avocado leaf. Both of which are featured items at Copal.
But if Mendoza is the main ingredient for Copal’s success, then the secret ingredient is love. Yes, we know, that is often a clichéd term in the food review world, but when it comes to Copal, there’s no denying the truth. Yet, there are two key elements that make the love truly shine through with every bite.
The first is Mendoza’s dedication to tradition as she uses her own family recipes.
“The mole dating [sic] back to my great, great grandmother,” she writes adding the enchiladas–a favorite of hers to cook and eat–also go back generations.
“Throughout the years I’ve adjusted some spices to my liking but the bases for the recipes are still the same.”
Any chef, amateur or professional, knows that in the kitchen recipes not only pop when cooked with love but also blend nicely with the spice of family, and at Copal it’s no different. Along with her ancestral recipes, Mendoza is also armed with her sous-chef–who is none other than her childhood friend, Alva, whom she highlights “really does help to add more love to the recipes.”
“First, because she is familiar with the culture, the cooking process and the traditional flavors,” Mendoza writes. “Second, she is someone I can count on to do something right and not cut corners if I am preoccupied with other recipes.”
It is this blending of family, tradition and love that gives Copal’s food it’s true nourishment, of the body and the soul. You can taste the deep richness of generations in the mole, the connection to the earth in the nopales, and the respect for life in the tenderly braised meats. And for those Santa Cruzans who are vegan/vegetarian, Chef Ana has curated a bountiful menu for you just as profoundly honoring in its heritage. Here, you aren’t just another patron, but a welcomed guest at the table of generations of Oaxacan women.
Of course, every great meal needs the perfect liquid pairing and that’s where Copal’s extraordinary mezcal bar comes to your service.
Legend has it that the first mezcal was produced when lightning hit the agave plant, creating the first “tatema” (roasted agave) giving mezcal it’s nickname of the “drink of the gods.” Unlike tequila–which is made from just the blue agave plant–mezcal can be made with a variety of agave and has different production and distillation techniques. The result is a more smoky, voluminous flavor and sweeter bouquet. And in Oaxaca, mezcal is the drink used for any given occasion: weddings, funerals, and a bottle for every meal.
“Growing up in Mexico, my family always had mezcal at the table,” Esteva fondly remembers. “It’s very common to have a little–less than a shot–before dinner, that supposedly ‘stirs up your appetite’ and then one more after.”
With over 200 different bottles in house, Copal’s mezcal menu has something to offer from the newest to the spirit to those well distilled in the drink. Besides the volume, it’s the careful curation of spirits that goes into this library of liquor that make it easy on the palette. Copal only deals with fair trade small-scale producers and companies so they know where it comes from and how it is produced.
Patrons can order by the ounce or–for the intellectual drinker–”piloted” flights, a row of several different mezcals with a staff member at the table to give the background of each one. However you enjoy your mezcal, just don’t shoot it down in one gulp. Once again, tradition serves up the best way to imbibe.
“Every place we’ve ever been to in Oaxaca says the way to enjoy a mezcal is to ‘kiss the mezcal,’” explains Antonlin. “Bring it to your lips and let the mezcal touch your lips like a kiss. It’s very romantic.”
While they believed in their food, Antonlin and Esteva also knew from previous experience the uncertainty of opening a new restaurant. Afterall, guests are never guaranteed and there’s always unexpected costs and unforeseen problems. Unfortunately, nobody saw the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. They had just begun hiring front of house staff when the first lockdown became immediate. With bills piling up, Copal’s owners knew they had to open soon and did so in the summer with to go orders only. Luckily, Santa Cruz responded in a big way.
“The first month of doing take-out was insane,” Esteva recalls. “We couldn’t keep up with orders and had to shut down the online system because there were too many.”
And their popularity has only continued to grow.
Talk of Chef Ana’s recipes spread quickly and since the reopening of outdoor dining, Copal is booked out nightly. So for those who want to enjoy their meal in the open air during the warm nights ahead, it’s best to get online and reserve a table early. Their take-out menu is back up and running as well, but we suggest Mendoza’s food is best enjoyed fresh from the kitchen. Preferably in the company of family, genetic or not, where the flavors and spirits can dance together in a sea of laughter, love and–with a little time–new traditions.
Copal is open Wednesday through Sunday, 4-8pm and until 9pm on Friday and Saturday.