What started as a series of mezcal dinners put on by chef Hugo Suastegui at Edgewood neighborhood restaurant El Tesoro, grew into a passion for the spirit made from agave for owners Alan Raines and Samantha Eaves, and then into a new bar and restaurant now open in Decatur.
Through its food and cocktails, Tortuga y Chango builds a bridge between Suastegui’s hometown of Acapulco and the Pacific coast of Guerrero, Mexico, and the origin region of mezcal in Oaxaca to the east.
Taking over the former Lawrence’s Cafe space on West College Avenue, Raines says Tortuga y Chango is first and foremost a mezcal bar that just so happens to serve really good food.
“Those five mezcal dinners drove the whole creation of this restaurant,” Raines says. “Many of the dishes Hugo served he learned from his dad in Acapulco. This is very familial food. We didn’t want to make everything completely coastal at Tortuga, so there are dishes inspired by those found in Oaxaca on the menu here, too.”
Food served at Tortuga y Chango is meant for pairing with mezcal and the cocktails created by beverage director Orestes Cruz, who hails from Mexico City. Tortuga y Chango features a number of small producer mezcals, along with the spirit’s many iterations and relations, like tequila and sotol. Mezcals and tequila are also available for sipping.
Raines says he fashioned Tortuga y Chango after three of his favorite mezcal bars in Oaxaca: Selva, Savina Sabe, and El Destilado.
“We’ve tried to mimic what we love about these places, which are much more elevated than ours, but at the same time they have a rustic charm,” he says. “But these bars appeal to the neighborhoods, something we hope to bring to Tortuga, like we do in Edgewood at Tesoro.”
Keeping the space intimate at just 40 seats and the food and drinks tight at Tortuga y Chango allows Suastegui and Cruz to really focus their menus, Raines adds, while affording them freedom to try out new dishes and cocktails as specials each week.
Raines points to moles from the Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca as helping to bridge the culinary gap between the regions and their coastal boundaries in the dishes at Tortuga y Chango.
“Bringing moles into dishes, like the chile relleno using a Oaxacan mole and shrimp instead of chorizo, brings that coastal, lighter touch to it,” he says. “This brings inland Oaxaca together with coastal Oaxaca.”
Cruz incorporates mole bitters in the Mex Mula cocktail, blending Banhez mezcal and tequila. As Suastegui does with his moles, sauces, and marinades, Cruz creates most of the cordials, bitters, and syrups used in his cocktails. The bar is stocked further with botanical gins from Mexico and the U.S., vodka, amaro, and a blue corn saison from Orpheus Brewing in Midtown.
“Our bar focus is on mezcal and all of its cousins, but we have something for everyone to drink here,” says Raines.
As for the name, it’s a nod to Eaves and her spirit animal the turtle (tortuga), which works at a steady, reliable pace, Raines says, and the monkey (chango), the spirit animal of the mezcaleros who produce the mezcal which causes people to dance. Chango is also the affectionate nickname the El Tesoro kitchen staff, most of whom hail from Guerrero, gave to Raines as he worked outside readying the patio for the restaurant’s opening day in 2019.
The walls in the dining room and bar at Tortuga y Chango are filled with odes to the turtle and monkey, along with reminders of travels to Oaxaca in search of mezcal. A rare handmade black clay bottle from Oaxaca shaped like a monkey is given pride of place behind the bar.
“It’s exciting to see this restaurant finally open. I love these tiny little, one-off buildings in the middle of neighborhoods where there’s nothing for three or four blocks in any direction and neighbors can walk over for dinner and drinks,” says Raines.
“People can say things like, ‘let’s go to our neighborhood place.’ But it’s a place where total strangers can meet, too, while enjoying a meal and a cocktail, and then friendships are forged.”
Check out the dinner and cocktail menus for Tortuga y Chango below:
910 West College Avenue, Decatur. tortugaychango.com.
Open Wednesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Kitchen closes at 10 p.m.