Smile Politely

Not your mother’s tequila bar

Last week, the Fuentes brothers, who own the El Toro restaurants, opened Wedge, a small tequila bar in downtown Champaign. The bar also serves Mexican food, both classic and reinterpreted.

Upon entry, it’s obvious that the backlit bar was designed to showcase their extensive tequila selection. Wedge has more than 100 types of tequila on the menu, including Blancos (meaning white, or unaged/barely aged), Reposados (meaning rested, or aged two months to a year), Añejos (meaning old, or aged one to three years in oak barrels). They also carry Ultra Premium tequilas — these are a variety of older, rarer, and probably more interesting tequilas (read pricier). The tequilas range from $4–45 per shot, although with a few exceptions, most run $10 or less.

If you can’t manage to find a tequila that suits you or you have a bottle of your own that you want to enjoy when you visit, they’ll store your favorite bottle in their VIP, lock-and-key cabinets. The specialty cocktail menu lists four margaritas, two mojitos, sangria, and a few other additional drinks that are tequila based. Wedge also has a full bar and a few wines, if none of the other drinks appeal to you (but I’m not sure why they wouldn’t).

When I came by with a few friends to do an early test run of the bar and the food, I found a few things I liked and a few things I didn’t. As always trying a restaurant this soon after it opens, you run the risk of unearthing a few flaws that the staff hasn’t had a chance to correct yet, so consider that as you read on.

We tried a variety of tequilas, all good as expected, and a couple of specialty margaritas from the bar. The Sparkling Pomegranate Margarita ($7) got rave reviews from our table as a perfectly balanced drink — not sweet, a little tart, and “spectacular.” The drink contains Silver Tequila, triple sec, pomegranate liquor, fresh lime juice, and was topped with a bit of sparkling wine. We also tried the Red Bell Pepper Margarita ($7) with house-infused red bell pepper tequila, triple sec, agave nectar, and fresh lime juice. While this one was good, we all thought the infused tequila could stand to let the bell pepper infuse a little longer to impart more of the flavor to the tequila. The longer this sits, the better it will be.

The Wedge’s kitchen started our meal right with a cup of perfectly crunchy, very small, spiced churros while we pondered the menu. My companion diners and I noticed immediately that, although the churros are all tossed in spice, an extra layer is sprinkled on top, so beware of the top layer if you’re not into heat, and if you are, try to sneak all the churros off the top before your fellow diners can get to them.

Everyone at the table enjoyed the flavors in our Shrimp Ceviche ($7), which contained mango, onion, cilantro, Serrano pepper, lime, and mint, and was also served with tortilla chips. I was a little underwhelmed with the chips, which were served cold, but perhaps every component is not meant to be made-to-order in the small kitchen. We also tried the Corn Maza Quesadilla ($7), which consisted of Chihuahua and Oaxaca cheeses, roasted zucchini, and zucchini blossoms, between two corn maza tortillas, handmade on site.

We also tried one of the salads, Nopalitos ($7), which is a preparation of the nopales, or prickly pear cactus, with pico de gallo, lime, and queso fresco. This dish also got a positive response from everyone at my table, both because it’s a bright and interesting salad, and also an authentic Mexican one, “just like my aunt makes,” one of our friends noted.

Aside from salads and a la carte, the right side of the menu is divided into three main sections: Tacos, Tortas, and Entrees. Based on the portion sizes, everything listed under these sections was actually an entree, just categorized so that you could more easily find what you’d like to eat. We chose items from all three areas.

The menu says each taco plate ($8) is served with two tacos on handmade corn tortillas, your choice of cilantro rice or traditional Mexican rice, and black beans, but the plate also includes a hearty serving of spicy pickled vegetables. As you select tacos, you can mix and match the seven kinds on the menu to get the combination of the two you want. We sampled the pastor (chile ancho rubbed pork, grilled pineapple, chile de arbol salsa, Chihuahua cheese, onion, cilantro) and calabacitas (zucchini blossoms, black bean puree, onions, cilantro and Chihuahua cheese). This chile de arbol salsa was not remotely as spicy as the chile de arbol salsas I enjoyed recently on a trip back to my home state of Texas, but the depth of flavor was nice.

I was disappointed with the beans, and so were all my dining companions. By the second bite, I realized they were inedible. The flavor was fine, but the texture of the juice accompanying the beans was gummy and unpleasant, as if a cornstarch had been added to thicken the texture to a paste. In stark contrast, I couldn’t stop eating the bright green cilantro rice. Instead of being flavored with tomatoes, this rice, with otherwise traditional texture, was lightly flavored with cilantro and was not overpowering, unless you are one of the unlucky to whom cilantro doesn’t taste good.

The Jalisco-Style Tamales ($11) were the star of the dinner, I thought. This dish seems inspired by the region of Jalisco, where all tequilas must originate to be officially called “tequila.” The plate includes two beef tamales, fairly traditional, but slightly crumbly in texture, so probably prepared without lard. The plate also includes a deep, balanced roasted salsa (so excellent I wish there had been more), creme fresca, a small serving of the nopalitos salad, the unfortunate black beans, and your choice of rice.

Also among our tasting was the Pollo Torta ($8). If you haven’t tried a torta, or Mexican sandwich, at one of the restaurants around town, you should. This particular torta, although one of the more reinterpreted than authentic dishes on the menu, due to the addition of bacon, had good flavor. It contained herb-marinated chicken, bacon, crema fresca, Chihuahua cheese, and mixed greens on a fresh telera roll and came with very thick potato wedges.

We didn’t try the desserts, one chocolate and one pumpkin, for a few reasons: They didn’t seem terribly authentic, they don’t make them on site, and, well, we were all quite full. But tequila makes an excellent liquid dessert.

While tequila is not new — production began on a mass scale more than 400 years ago — the widespread popularity of tequila in the United States as a drink for sipping instead of for shots counts as relatively new, within the past couple of decades. In the last five years, the number of tequila bars across the country has grown exponentially, and Champaign was due for its own.

Just like wine, you can taste tequila with as much or as little effort as you wish to put into it. In general, the younger blancos are harsher and añejos, smoother and more complex. For a little more information, ask your bartender at your local tequila bar, or check out some basic visual, olfactory, and tasting guidelines from the National Chamber for the Tequila Industry. (Click on the “Taste for Tequila” tab — no direct link available.)

Wedge Tequila Bar and Grill is located at 415 N. Neil Street in downtown Champaign. Their hours are 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday and 11 a.m.–2 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday. You can also attend their grand opening party on November 8. More information is available on Facebook.

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