Pasqual's Cantina: Bringing Mexican Tequila to Wisconsin

Photo by Eric Tadsen

What started as an exploration into Mexicos most notorious spirittequilais today taking Pasquals Chef and CEO Benjamin Roberts on a mission to bring the flavors of blue agave and tequila to Wisconsin.

Already boasting decades of success in serving fresh, authentic food inspired by the American Southwest, Pasquals is also now honoring the influence of one of Mexicos richest culinary traditions: tequila. With 387 different varieties available at Pasquals Hilldale restaurant in Madison, 130 at the citys East Washington Avenue location, and 100 more at its Verona eatery, Pasquals is reinventing itself with lively cantina-style tequila bars.

There are more than 3,000 different tequilas worldwide, but most of them are not widely imported to the United States, Benjamin says. I did a bit of research to see what else was out there and worked with local distributors to bring in a wider variety.

Benjamins quest has resulted in a tequila menu longer than most food menus at other restaurants. With flavors and prices ranging from $6 to $55 per drink, Pasquals offers a wide range of tequila types and flavors.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Pasquals specializes in 100 percent agavetrue tequila made exclusively from juices of the Weber blue agave plant and bottled only in Mexico. There are several different types, including Blanco-Silver-Plata Tequilas, which are clear or lightly colored and bottled directly after distillation. These un-aged tequilas showcase the bright citrusy, unadulterated flavors of the agave.

Beginning tequila connoisseurs might drift toward Reposado Tequila, meaning rested and aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 60 days, but no longer than one year. Others prefer Aejo Tequila, aged in small-batch oak casks for a minimum of one year to develop a rich body and complex flavors. The highest-end (and most expensive) tequila is Extra Aejo, a category reserved for artisan tequilas aged a minimum of three years in small oak casks.

The change in flavor adjusts with age in various types of wooden barrels, Benjamin says. The longer a tequila is aged in a cask, the more the flavors caramelize and smooth out. It gets sweeter.

Cocktail menus featuring signature tequila drinks at Pasquals change two or three times per year, based on the season. Every month, Pasquals offers a different Miracle Margarita, with a portion of proceeds donated to a rotating list of community charities.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Pasquals growing menu of signature tequilas complements a menu heavy on flavor and famous for its fresh guacamole. After growing up nearby and working at Pasquals for years, Benjamin bought the restaurant in 2001. Since then, hes opened three locations, tweaked many of the eaterys signature recipes, and reinvented its famous Pasquals chips and salsa, made fresh daily and also packaged for wholesale at Madison area grocery stores. All menu items are made with fresh ingredients, and all chiles and powders are sourced straight from the Southwest, mainly New Mexico.

Benjamins favorite dish is Pasquals Enchiladas, a Southwestern favorite topped with cheese and green onions and served with New Mexican rice and black beans or pinto bean mash. Customers have the option to order flour, yellow corn, or blue corn tortillas filled with shredded beef, slow-cooked chicken, pork carnitas, chorizo, garden veggies, tofu sofrito, black beans, pinto bean mash, or cheese, and then topped with red chile, green chile, or mole sauce. For me, enchiladas taste like home, but that may be because Ive been eating them at Pasquals since I was a kid.

Other favorites include Pasquals Fajitas, featuring grilled marinated chicken or fajita steak with sauted poblano peppers, red peppers and onions, pico de gallo, lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, cheddar-jack cheese, black beans, and rice, served with warm flour tortillas.

When Benjamin and his restaurant managers get really hungry, however, they order the famous Pasquals Nachos: tortilla chips layered with tomatoes, black olives, green onions, cilantro, green chiles, jalapenos, cheddar-jack cheese, sour cream, salsa, and a choice of shredded beef, slow-cooked chicken, pork carnitas, chorizo, garden veggies, pinto bean mash, or black beans.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

With three different locations, each demanding a fully staffed kitchen, bar, and wait staff, Benjamin says his secret to good service is acquiring and maintaining a well-taken-care-of staff. If our employees are taken care of, they take care of the customers. Pasquals also offers catering with crowd-pleasing taco and fajita bars. Pasquals on East Washington Avenue features a private dining room in the upstairs of its historic building, which can seat up to 80 people or serve 100 for a cocktail party.

One aspect Benjamin especially enjoys about Pasquals is its reputation for being family friendly. Parents feel comfortable bringing their kids here, and its a great place for family gatherings. We see a lot of groups with 12 to 15 people every day at each of the restaurants.

With its growing cantina-style tequila bars, reputation for fresh and flavorful Southwestern food, and commitment to taking care of its staff, Benjamin says every reason he bought Pasquals in the first place still holds true. The reason I opened a restaurant was because I loved cooking, entertaining, and seeing people enjoy themselves. And I still get to do all of those things every single day.

Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.