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Meet the Bartender: Irving Gonzalez

He’s the winner of the first bi-national cocktail competition and part of a growing, cross-border bartender collaboration


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Irving Gonzalez at the Nov. 8 bi-national cocktail competition in Tijuana. | Photo: Arlene Ibarra

It was an invitation I couldn’t turn down: judging a bi-national cocktail competition in Tijuana on Election Night. It seemed oddly appropriate: By the end of the night, we’d either be celebrating or commiserating, and at least there would be good booze.

Held at Tijuana’s World Trade Center, the event was the first time bartenders from both sides of the border met in competition. From San Diego: Michele Willard (Urbn/Basic), Andrew Cordero (Noble Experiment), Mark Broadfoot (Galaxy Taco), and Stephen Kurpinsky (George’s at the Cove). From Tijuana: Kevin Maldonado (Nortico), Fernando Villalobos (Oryx Capital), Irving Gonzalez (Plaza Bar / Westgate Hotel), and Sergio Arturo Gonzalez (Bar 20 / Mision 19).

The cocktail competition participants with emcee Ruffo Ibarra (far right). | Photo: Arlene Ibarra

It was a friendly competition. Tijuana’s cocktail scene is new, but growing, and with it, a regional spirit of camaraderie and collaboration between the two cities. Though, after last Tuesday, when Tijuana bartenders took first and second place, the city earned some serious craft-cocktail cred and bragging rights over San Diego.

All the cocktails were great—any of them could end up on a menu. But, Gonzalez—who lives in Tijuana and works at the Westgate Hotel’s Plaza Bar—turned in two stellar, memorable cocktails. For the first, he took vodka and infused it with ginger, grapefruit, turmeric, and coconut oil. To that he added kaffir lime syrup and some cream. For the second round, which required the top-four finishers (Broadfoot, Willard, Gonzalez, and Villalobos) to make a cocktail using cherry tomatoes, he turned out an on-the-fly savory mezcal cocktail that included muddled green onions, grapefruit, celery bitters, and a touch of Aperol.

I’d met Gonzalez last March, when he participated in a competition using Old Harbor’s Ampersand coffee liqueur. He was still very new to bartending at that point and told me he felt a little out of place. Knowing that, it’s so impressive to see how much he’s grown in less than a year, both in skills and confidence.

Unfortunately, you won’t find him at the Plaza Bar until mid-December. His work visa expired and he’s going through the long process of renewing it. But he’s eager to get back to bartending—and, hopefully, he’ll put his winning cocktails on the Plaza Bar’s menu.

Where did you get your start?

When I was 16 years old, my dad gave me a cocktail book. He said, “If you’re going to be drinking, I’d rather you be drinking here instead of going out.” It was a huge book with all these cool, classic cocktails. I remember there was a cocktail named Tijuana. It was tequila, rum, orange juice, lime juice, lemon juice, and just a splash of soda—and grenadine, just to add some color. I was amazed with the cocktail because it was [called] Tijuana, right? So, I started making it in my house. It was really bad. But it was strong, so everyone was, like, this is amazing. After that, a couple of friends would invite me to their parties. I started making Sex on the Beach. I started making a lot of cocktails with blue Curaçao. They started paying me, like, 100 pesos to [bartend]. It was my dream job—I’m, like, OK, I’m going to parties and making cocktails. That was the start.

Then I went to culinary school to try to become a chef. I worked in a couple of kitchens in Ensenada, but I didn’t feel that love for the job. I loved creating things and I loved to be part of the process, but I like to talk with people. I want to hear opinions. And when you’re in a kitchen, the only things you see are walls and the kitchen staff. I didn’t enjoy that. But when you’re in the bar… every single day different [customers] come in. You get to hear some stories, tell some stories.

I worked at an oyster bar in Ensenada. It was crazy—every single day it was packed. So, you had a lot of people asking for shots, a lot of mojitos. After that, I went to [Valle de Guadalupe], to the wine country, and everything changed. I went to an interview at Encuentro and it was Chef Flor Franco and Frankie [Thaheld from Snake Oil Cocktail Co.]. I was amazed—they talked about the idea of using things from Baja. I remember one cocktail, it was ancho chile, carrot juice, and mezcal. The garnish was a piece of smoked pork belly. I was amazed. Frankie was telling me all these ideas that he had. He wanted to do some raspados, which is crushed ice and you put some flavor on it and then the spirit. That’s when I met Stephen Kurpinsky, who was consulting with Frankie. He came up with the idea of mango and chile de arbol—a super-spicy raspado with some vodka. We were having fun there. After that I found the job here.

The cocktails you made last Tuesday were so good. There was this level of sophistication. That savory cocktail….

When Ruffo Ibarra [the event’s emcee and chef at Tijuana restaurant Oryx Capital] said the ingredient was going to be cherry tomato, I was, like, I don’t know what to do, but at least I made it to the final round. I went to the back of the stage and saw some green onions and asked, “Is anyone using green onions?” No? Let’s do it. I was thinking about an Old Fashioned, because I love Old Fashioneds. Then you’ve got the flavor of the cherry tomato, which is really sweet, but it’s so powerful, so let’s give it a kick. I always carry with me my bitters, always.

I saw you had that bitters travel kit. I have the same one.

And I brought my smoke gun also, because it’s kind of like my newest toy. I said, let’s muddle everything and some grapefruit instead of lemon or lime juice. For the green onion, I used just the tail. There was a great selection of mezcal from Mark [Broadfoot], so I decided to use mezcal, and it was great—it added an oaky, smokey flavor to the cocktail.

So, you’ve never made this cocktail before and you’ve got five minutes to do it. Are you thinking, “I think this is going to work?” Or are you thinking, “I know this is going to work?”

It was more, I think this is going to work out. I know the flavors. I don’t like to follow recipes. Even when I was muddling everything, I don’t know if you saw my face…. Then I tried it, and it was good. I didn’t expect that combination to work so well, but I really enjoyed it. That’s the thing about the process of creating cocktails. It’s just fun—it’s experimental. And if it’s not working, let’s start again.

When you want to try new techniques or new flavors, are you looking to Baja for inspiration?

It’s more about books. I have a couple of books. Liquid Intelligence, that’s one. Drunken Botanist. For techniques, I look more at what people are doing here in the states…. Right now the cocktail scene in Mexico, in Baja, is not that big.

That was going to be my next question: how would you describe the cocktail scene in Baja?

It’s just a baby right now against two big monsters, which is wine and beer. The wine in Baja is great—I love it—and the beer as well. Right now, “mixologist” is a new, trendy word in Baja. So if you’re doing a bar, you need to put mixologist on it. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a mojito.

I enjoy drinking everything—wine, beer, and cocktails. But if I see someone doing cocktails, I go there. Let’s see, what do you have? OK, you’ve got this Old Fashioned with some peppers on it. Let me try it. It’s going to be 200 pesos [roughly $10]. But, most people don’t like that. [They think], “Why do I need to pay 200 pesos versus a beer that’s $2 or wine that’s $3?”

But is it a good Old Fashioned?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, it’s like, “This is really an Old Fashioned?” Oryx Capital and Nortico—that’s amazing cocktails. I don’t know a better place than those two. Fernando [Villalobos] and Kevin [Maldonado] are doing an amazing job and I love the cocktails there. But there was another place that just opened, [advertising] "mezcal and mixology." OK, I like both things, so let’s give it a try. They did a martini with mezcal that was gross; they were doing a couple things that just didn’t make any sense. They didn’t think about the menu that well. Lemon juice and lime juice in plastic bottles. They didn’t care about the details and, in my opinion, details are the important thing. You need to be conscientious about the ingredients. You’ve got Mercado Hildago, which is a huge market and you can find amazing things there. Give it a try, go for it, bring some ingredients and play with them at your bar. Maybe the people here in Baja, they don’t care. But there are people looking at Baja and when you see a huge sign that says “mezcal and mixology,” you’re going to want to try it. And when you try it and it’s gross, it’s, like, “I’ll never come back and I’ll never trust a Baja mixologist.” And that’s the thing we’re dealing with.

If you want to do it, do it good. I think it’s a huge opportunity right now. Mexico City already has Tales of the Cocktail. Why not Baja? Why can’t we have a huge collaboration?

Do you ever feel like maybe you should be focusing your attention on Tijuana and not working up here in San Diego?

Yes. In the beginning I was so amazed that I had the job here. Then I realized that I had the opportunity to be involved in San Diego and Tijuana as well. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not going to say I’m trying to bring everyone together, but I’m trying to bring things from both worlds. That’s the thing we need to do—people from San Diego and Baja, we need to share. Everyone is so amazing. Everyone has huge talent. And they have their own style and we can combine that.

You can come up with a regional style.

It could be a new style of cocktails. Bring everything together and create something fun and wave that flag. There’s a competition in New York, there’s a competition in Mexico City—let’s bring a team from both sides of the border and represent this cocktail movement that we’re creating.

Other cities get so much attention. I wonder if turning it into a San Diego / Tijuana region, that’s the thing that gets people looking over here in terms of cocktails?

We’ve got our own thing. If we can combine that, it’ll be a really, really good thing. I really have my hopes high on that. In the competition, in the final round, everyone was sharing things. That’s the idea—bring everyone together.

Is there any new spirit or new liqueur that you’ve come across lately that you’re really excited to work with?

Right now, it’s Sotol and Bacanora. I’ve never done cocktails with those spirits before.

When I was in Mexico City, one of my dreams was to make pulque [fermented agave juice]. I love pulque. I would love to try to do that and play with tepaches [a spiced, fermented drink made from pineapple rinds], and things like that.

What is the strangest request you’ve ever gotten from a customer?

When I was in Ensenada working at a craft beer bar, five or six girls came in. They said, “We love beer. Do you know how to make good cocktails with beer?” I said, “I can try.” So, I started making some samples. They were trying it and thought they were good. I was, like, “OK, so, what do you want?” They asked, “You can do pitchers?” I said, “Definitely. For sure.” They said, “You’ve got Clamato? You’ve got a stout? Give us three pitchers of that.” I was [mixing the stout and Clamato] with pain in my heart—sorry, beer. After that, they asked for glasses with some salt on the rim. It was, like, “Really?”

Fill in the blank: I wish people would stop ordering ______________ and instead order _______________.

Piña Coladas without alcohol. I can totally give you that if you’re in Cancun or Hawaii. Here I would rather make a daiquiri and maybe go crazy with some flavors instead of doing a Piña Colada with or without alcohol.

On your night off, where are you and what are you drinking?

When I’m in Mexico, I like to go to a place called La Plaza, which is like a tiny shopping mall that has a lot of tasting rooms. If I’m there, I’m drinking Insurgente’s black IPA. I love it. When I’m here, I’d be at The Lion’s Share drinking a Sazerac. I love Sazeracs.


Got ideas for a future post? Write 2kellydavis@gmail.com.

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