Bugging Out with Insect-Flavored Cocktails

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

By Tim Ebner, photography by Jennifer Chase

“You ate what?” “I would never …” “Ewww, gross!”

These are just a few of the responses I typically get when I tell people that I love to eat bugs.

While you might consider grasshoppers, crickets, ants or worms to be common household pests, many people around the world have developed a taste for edible insects.

When cooked and seasoned carefully, bugs exhibit extreme earthy and bold flavors. Sometimes there’s even a lingering taste of the land from which they came—dare I call it terroir?

Bugs are increasingly becoming an essential part of the human dietary habit. Already people in more than 130 countries eat insects often as part of a meal, and anyone who’s traveled to Mexico knows that chapulines (grasshoppers) are considered to be a delicacy and Oaxacans anticipate griddling up flying ants, called chicatanas, every spring when they swarm after the first rains.

In Washington, DC, bugs are also increasingly showing up on food and drink menus, especially at Mexican-themed eateries, like Oyamel, Poca Madre and Tequila y Mezcal. At these restaurants, especially behind the bar, insects take on a life of their own—an essential ingredient that can add new flavor dimensions to a summer cocktail. 

Hibiscus Margarita with Sal de Gusano

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Columbia Heights has a new mezcal bar called Tequila y Mezcal and it opened just in time for summer, serving Oaxacan dishes as well as tacos and cocktails inspired by century-old cooking traditions.

On most nights, the husband-and-wife team of Chefs Dio Montero and Mirna Alvarado (of Taqueria Habanero fame—also in Columbia Heights) oversee a rapid-fire production of tacos on the grill, including one off-menu item, grasshopper tacos, that only in-the-know patrons know to order a la carte.

Especially in the south-central regions of Mexico, all sorts of bugs, including worms, are eaten regularly. As larvae, they become a tasty byproduct known as sal de gusano (worm salt), which for many in Mexico is a prized possession. You might see it as an additive to a sauté or folded into the making of hand-pressed tortillas. It’s also served in a small bowl alongside a sip of mezcal—just pinch some of the salt to taste, then sip slowly on the mezcal for a smoky aftereffect, says William Martinez, general manager of Tequila y Mezcal.

“You can taste the slight saltiness and you can taste the roasted flavor too,” Martinez says. “I would say it’s almost like eating a sunflower seed as a bar snack.”

Worm salt is also a sustainable way to help mezcal and tequila producers. That’s because this bug’s larvae typically feast on the roots of the agave plant, and since Aztec civilization people have hand-picked the pest to save the agave. When cooked and roasted using a comal, the larvae plump up into a protein-laden snack, or can be ground and combined with rock salt and dried chile peppers to make sal de gusano.

For the at-home bartender, worm salt is an excellent flavoring agent that can be used to replace plain old salt for margaritas. Bartender Israel Mendez shares a recipe that calls for mezcal and comes spiked with the tart and floral notes of hibiscus. To find a jar of sal de gusano, he suggests importing it directly from Oaxaca (a few companies on Amazon.com import the salt) or check your local organic or Mexican market.

Cocktail ingredients:
2 ounces Wahaka Joven Espadin Mezcal 
1 ounce lime juice
1 ounce hibiscus simple syrup
1 cup dried hibiscus flowers (for simple syrup and garnish)
Lime wedge (for garnish)
Sal de gusano (for garnish)

To make the hibiscus simple syrup: Bring 2 cups of sugar and water in a saucepan to boil, stirring occasionally. Remove the saucepan from heat, then add a cup of hibiscus flowers, allowing the mixture to steep for at least 5 to 10 minutes and continuing to stir occasionally. Strain the mixture, keeping only the simple syrup.

To make the hibiscus margarita: In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine the mezcal, lime juice and hibiscus simple syrup. Shake vigorously. Take a cocktail glass and dip the rim in lime juice, then onto a plate of sal de gusano. Finally, take the glass and add ice (half-full), then strain the cocktail mix, garnishing with a lime wedge or slice and a dried hibiscus flower.

Oaxacan Orange with Gusano Rojo

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Gusano rojo (not to be confused with a popular Mexican brand of mezcal) literally translates to mean “red worm,” and it’s another inventive take on a worm salt that adds spice and heat to a cocktail that’s bursting with fresh citrus flavor—the Oaxacan Orange.

The cocktail is a specialty at Oyamel in Chinatown. Beverage director Alan Grublauskas says it’s one of the most popular drinks on the menu, and he bets very few people know the drink comes lined with the restaurant’s house-made worm salt, ground with Oaxacan sea salt, chile de árbol pepper and a common Mexican spice, Pasilla de Oaxaca Flakes.

“Then we add the red worms—gusano rojo—to bring out the orange color in the salt,” he says.

His fondness for bugs doesn’t stop there.

“We typically like to ask people how adventurous they are,” Grublauskas says. “Because, here, you can sample everything from worms to scorpions, even grasshoppers.”

Aside from the sustainability benefits of eating insects, Grublauskas likens the taste to eating potato chips, but better.

“You can roast this bug in a mixture of salt and spices, and it really transforms into something extremely tasty. I think many people’s minds are shifting, and they’re venturing toward insects,” he says. “You can eat them whole or you can grind them down into a variety of different salts that work really well as a garnish or finish.”

Cocktail ingredients:
1½ ounces Wahaka Joven Espadin Mezcal 
½ ounce Luxardo Maraschino liqueur 
2 ounces sour orange juice 
Gusano rojo (for garnish)
Orange wedge (for garnish)

Sour orange juice ingredients: 
¼ cup fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice 
¼ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
½ cup fresh lime juice

In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine the mezcal, Luxardo and sour orange juice. Shake vigorously. Take a cocktail glass and first dip the rim in lime juice followed by gusano rojo. Finally, take the glass and add ice (half-full), then strain the mix, adding an orange wedge (rim dipped in extra gusano rojo) if you prefer.

Charlie and the Chapuline Factory

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

With a cocktail named in honor of Willy Wonka, you would expect a drink that’s outlandish and fun.

But without looking too closely at the cocktail menu, Poca Madre patrons could soon be in for a sudden surprise if they order the Charlie and the Chapuline Factory.

The drink comes garnished with a grasshopper and combines the earthy flavors of ground-up peanuts and grasshoppers for an earthy sensation.

“We blend up the grasshoppers with our peanut syrup. Then we purée and strain it,” says Amin Seddiq, Poca Madre's beverage manager. “You get this distinct earthy flavor, with a slight saltiness, because the grasshoppers are cured in salt and lime.”

The drink is a classic take on a sour cocktail, but it has both thickness and texture thanks to the peanut-and-grasshopper syrup.

And if you think grasshoppers are still somewhat of a novelty in the United States, you better guess again.

Seddiq says recently these critters have sprung onto grocery store shelves, including at MOM’s Organic Market in Ivy City.

Preserved insects, like grasshoppers, crickets and mealworms, are for sale by the ounce, or you can try a variety of pre-packaged snack bars and chips seasoned with insect powder.

“I think grasshoppers really are one of nature’s original proteins,” Seddiq says. “So many cultures have used them for centuries, and it adds such an interesting flavor component to the drink.”

Cocktail ingredients:
2 ounces mezcal
1 ounce lime juice 
1½ ounces peanut syrup
Egg white from 1 egg

Peanut and grasshopper syrup:
3 ounces peanuts
¼ ounce grasshoppers
1 cup sugar
1½ cups pineapple juice
1 stalk lemon grass, roughly chopped
1 chile de árbol pepper, roughly chopped

To make the peanut syrup: Wrap the lemongrass and chilies in cheesecloth. In a saucepan, bring the sugar, grasshoppers and pineapple juice to a boil. Then, add in the lemongrass and chilies and let steep for 10 minutes on high heat. Remove the lemongrass and chilies, then blend the remaining liquid on high for 2 minutes. Strain the mixture and place back into the blender, adding peanuts. Blend for another 2 minutes. Place the mixture back in the saucepan and bring it to a boil again. Turn off the heat and let simmer for 15 minutes. Finally, strain a final time, adding a quarter cup of pineapple juice.

To make the Charlie and the Chapuline Factory: In a cocktail shaker combine all ingredients, then shake vigorously. Strain and serve the drink in a cocktail glass on the rocks. Garnish with an edible flower and place a grasshopper on the flower.

Cuban Flavors Grow in the DMV

Colada Shop DC’s colorful facade. Photo by Rey Lopez.

Colada Shop DC’s colorful facade. Photo by Rey Lopez.

By Jessica Wolfrom

Thinking of Cuban food, we conjure up the island’s famed sandwiches, strong coffee and sugary rum cocktails. But Cuban food is so much more; it’s a confluence of cultures, ideas and people, mashed together to delicious effect.

“The history of Cuban cuisine has incredible influence from around the world, from Africa to Spain, Portugal and France,” says Mario Monte, chef and co-owner of Colada Shop.

Monte, who was born in Miami to a Cuban father and Italian mother, doesn’t seem at all surprised by the uptick in Cuban outposts around the District. “The resurgence of popularity in this pearl of an island just proves that how good its flavorful origins are as well as the vibrancy of its people,” he says. Now, Washingtonians can experience more Cuban flavors at a number of spots around the DMV. We’ve rounded up the best of the new.

Colada Shop DC’s croquetas preparadas. Photo by Brian Oh.

Colada Shop DC’s croquetas preparadas. Photo by Brian Oh.

Colada Shop

Coladas and conversation come easy at this 14th Street NW Corridor café. But Colada Shop serves more than just rum-drenched cocktails. This colorful shop from Barmini alum Juan Coronado, chef Mario Monte and Daniella Senior opened its doors (and walk-up bar window) to the District last February following the success of its original shop in Sterling, VA.

During the day, the shop brews the real-deal Colada—four shots of espresso sweetened with sweet crema and served with demitasse cups to share—as well as other caffeinated Cuban favorites like a cortadito (espresso steamed evaporated milk and foam) and café Cubano, a shot of coffee sweetened with crema.

Start your day with a potato and sofrito tortilla or a classic Cuban tostada. For lunch, the shop offers a lineup of sandwiches like the famous Cubano (ham, slow-roasted pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, pickles and cilantro on Cuban-style bread) or the croqueta preparada (crispy chicken croquet served over ham and Swiss). Late-risers can snag empanadas, croquetas or pastelitos at any time.

By night, rum cocktails flow to Caribbean beats and spending time here with friends is hard to beat.

Colada Shop DC, 1405 T St. NW, Washington, DC
Colada Shop VA, 21430 Epicerie Plaza, Sterling, VA

Little Havana beckons diners in with colorful murals.

Little Havana beckons diners in with colorful murals.

Little Havana

When Alfredo Solis and Joseph Osario teamed up to open Little Havana, a colorful Cuban eatery in Columbia Heights, their mission was to bring Cubano food to the district.

The space is a multichromatic celebration of Latin American culture. The walls are adorned with murals by artist Ernesto Zelaya, who painted portraits of Cuban icons including revolutionary leader Che Guevara, Washington Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez and “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz.

But the food here is the main attraction. Hearty dishes like braised oxtail, Cuban chicken stew, jerk salmon and guava barbecued ribs showcase Cuban home cooking and the lineup of sandwiches includes the iconic Cubano as well other versions brimming with slow-roasted shredded pork, grilled chicken or chorizo. Shaking your cocktails is Copycat Co. veteran Heriberto Casasanero, who’s taking tiki seriously, serving up rum-focused drinks in frozen pineapples and coconuts.

Little Havana, 3704 14th St. NW | littlehavanadc.com

El Sapo Cuban Social Club

In Cuba, when people play the lottery or make bets they place their fate in la charada china, a mystical guide of numbers and pictures deeply rooted in Cuban superstition.

When Havana-born chef Raynold Mendizábal opened El Sapo in Silver Spring last year, he bet on the number 22. Mendizábal, who’s also the chef at the nearby Urban Butcher, opened El Sapo exactly 22 years after fleeing Cuba and stepping onto American soil. According to la charada china, the number 22 corresponds to el sapo: the toad.

Mendizábal has said that he wants his guests to entrar bailando, or “come in dancing.” And even for those of us with two left feet, it’s hard to resist the rhythm here. As you enter, Latin music and mojitos fill every corner. Mendizábal’s meat-heavy menu highlights both the foods of his childhood and the foods that defined his culinary journey from Cuba to the United States. You will find the Cuban national dish, puerco asado (roasted pork) as well as Mendizábal’s favorite childhood dish rabo encendio (fiery oxtails). Drinks flow freely from the rum cart, and the chef makes sure meals wrap up with their famous cortaditos or Cuban coffee, ensuring you leave the same way you entered: dancing to the music.

El Sapo Social Club, 8455 Fenton St., Suite #1, Silver Spring, MD | elsaporestaurant.com