When an insect finds itself in a drink, it's usually by accident. That's not so at Poca Madre, where adventurous imbibers can sip on the Charlie and the Chapuline Factory, a cocktail infused with grasshoppers sourced straight from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Known as chapulines in Mexico and Central America, these little critters are popular bar snacks with a nutty, earthy taste. But incorporating them in a boozy beverage (no, they're not alive) is undoubtedly out of the box.
The cocktail is the creation of Poca Madre service director Michael Iglesias, who says he was inspired by a real-life Charlie he met at a bar during a trip to Mexico in 2012.
"He literally made a pineapple grasshopper sour with the peanut, grasshopper and chili de arbol mixture that is on the bar at Casa Oaxaca," he says.
When he started developing beverages for the eventual opening of Poca Madre, Iglesias had the idea of taking that memorable Oaxacan drink on a bit of an Asian journey.
"What I ended up doing was thinking about peanuts and those great Thai flavors and the great Thai peanut chili sauce that you get when you're eating spring rolls," Iglesias says.
He settled on a mezcal-based cocktail with pineapple, grasshopper, lemongrass, sambal, Japanese peanuts and egg whites. He estimates it took him and his team about two days and seven different variations of research and development to develop and perfect the drink. It's far from the frozen margaritas or boozy sangrias found at Mexican restaurants around D.C.
That certainly fits in with the rest of Poca Madre, where chef and owner Victor Albisu is having fun with refined and inventive interpretations of Mexican cuisine and culture. Other nontraditional drinks on the menu include a duck fat old fashioned and the Ziggy Stardust margarita, which is frozen to order and best enjoyed by the spoonful.
"Here at Poca, it's really about Mexican exploration and our own exploration of Mexican cuisine," Iglesias says.
Poca Madre buys its chapulines (along with other grocery items) from a market in San Antonio de la Cal in Oaxaca. The grasshoppers feed on alfalfa before being caught and toasted on a traditional comal grill with chili salt, lime and garlic. To make the drink, the grasshoppers are cooked down into a peanut, grasshopper and lemongrass syrup. That mixture sits for a day before getting additions of dried chili de arbol and sambal, forming the base of the Charlie and the Chapuline cocktail.
The drink itself is somewhat of a sipper with notes of spice, citrus and a heavy bit of umami and nuttiness. The addition of egg white gives it a foamy mouthfeel and the smokiness of the mezcal ties everything together. Squeamish stomachs may be relieved to know it's hard to put a finger on exactly what the chapulines taste like. Still, this drink and its unusual makeup is not for everyone. Just knowing there are grasshoppers somewhere in there may be enough of a turn off for some. And the grasshopper garnish may not help.
Still, Iglesias says the cocktail has done well in the short time the restaurant's been open, with curious drinkers ready to give it a try.
"Out of the 14 drinks on the menu, Charlie is number four," he says.
Poca Madre is located at 777 I St. NW, adjacent to Taco Bamba.