Casa Mezcal: selling “mexicanness” in New York City

Restaurants are an important space for the consumption of the culturally other. This is particularly the case of the so-called “ethnic restaurants”.

Ethnic restaurants often attract elite consumers because these type of costumer values cosmopolitanism. This explains why elite costumers are often willing to pay high prices for an “authentic” cultural platter. Eating out in these restaurants becomes synonymous with being “cosmopolitan”–a trait that is highly valued amongst certain groups.

In New York, there is a mushrooming of these ethno-chick restaurants.

Casa Mezcal is an ethno-chick restaurant that has capitalized on “mexicanness” in order to draw an international crowd. The restaurant–located on the gentrified Lower East Side of Manhattan–deploys a particular style of  “mexicanness” in order to attract an elite customer.

The restaurant uses the aesthetics of fusion. In many restaurants, fusion is often strategically deployed as a means to express a happy mixture between two cultures. In fusion, the threatening culture of the other is imagined as fully compatible–and able to mend– with the dominant one.

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Inside Casa Mezcal–“mexicanness”– is displayed through a collection of objects.The wall behind the bar consists on a series of lockers displaying different elements that belong to rituals of Mexican life–like the Virgen of Guadalupe or soccer pictures. These elements however, have been separated from its users and turned into objects of display.  It is a place of nostalgic readymades, a style that could easily be turned into a franchise.

In Casa Mezcal, as in other places, the act of drinking Mezcal has also been separated from its users.

Mezcal is an alcoholic drink made from the Maguey plan , which grows in some parts of Mexico. Until fairly recently, mezcal was an alcohol drank by the Mexican lower classes; Mezcalerias–the places where mezcal was drank– were often seen as dirty and dangerous places by the Mexican high class.  Recently, however, Mezcalerias have mushroomed all across trendy neighborhoods in Mexico City. Mezcal has become chick among the Mexican middle and high class. In these places, like in Casa Mezcal, the consumption of the alcohol is deemed as a “cool”. Mezcal remains symbolic of the lower class but it has been sanitized of its original users. Knowing how to consume it–and consuming it–has become a display of cultural capital among the Mexican high class.

Ethnic restaurants often reify certain cultural stereotypes. If they didn’t, they would not be recognized as ethnic by their customers and would not be able to capitalize in their serving of a minority culture’s food. According to Ruth Mandel these forms of restaurants are in, just as long as the experience of the other “does not extend beyond the friendly staff of the quaint and colorful ethnic restaurant, when it remains tourist-friendly in a native village, when it stays in its safe, commodified place.” (Ruth Mandel, p96).

Casa Mezcal presents a consumer-friendly form of “mexicanness” that draws in an elite Mexican consumer. In this case, Mexicans end up consuming “mexicanness” and perpetuating cultural stereotypes.

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