San Diego’s tequila tastes have changed since 1947, when La Jolla bartender Albert Hernandez invented the frozen blended version at the now-defunct La Plaza Mexican restaurant. These days, spirited San Diegans who slurp alcoholic ices on hot summer days also enjoy sipping neat tequila and mezcal on cold evenings. That’s created an opening for Tahona, Old Town’s newest hot spot. Named after the stone used in Mexico to crush agave, the plant used to make tequila and mezcal, Tahona features a tasting room with 120-plus varieties of mezcal as well as a wide variety of craft cocktails and gourmet tacos. Owner Amar Harrag was inspired by a tequila tasting room he enjoyed while vacationing in Oaxaca. When he saw that the space next to Old Town’s historic Cemetery of El Campo Santo was available, everything clicked into place. In the process, Harrag has become an evangelist for mezcal, a smokier agave spirit with charms of its own. “Agaves are unique,” he says. “Some can be strong or nicer—it’s almost like they have a personality.” Tahona puts the same care into the food menu, using housemade moles and syrups, and only vegetables that are in season. “People appreciate being transported to a different world,” Harrag says. 2414 San Diego Ave.
Growing up in Boston, Brian Smith worked in a small neighborhood butcher shop and learned to appreciate a great cut of beef. But when he moved to Southern California, Smith was disappointed that the meat options were limited to mostly industrial commodity beef sold in big-box stores. Instead of silently sulking over a prefabricated frozen hamburger patty, Smith chose to do something about it. With partner and co-founder/owner Robert Hagopian, he created The Butchery, a full-service butcher shop known for high-quality meats, artisan cheeses, craft beers and wines. With three locations in Orange County, The Butchery opens its fourth outpost this month at One Paseo, a new mixed-use development on the corner of Del Mar Heights Road and El Camino Real. Smith sees this location as the culmination of what he’s learned at the other spots, since this will be the first Butchery with a kitchen. “Our concept is a bistro where we will highlight the meats and other products we offer in our meat case, in a comfort-food style that can easily be recreated at home,” he says. “We’ll offer a seasonal artisan cheese and charcuterie plate created from our case.” Of course, he’s learned some lessons since opening the first location 10 years ago. “We’ve learned over time that our customers drive what we carry, not the other way around,” he says.