When I moved to New York five years ago, I found this small Mexican bar just blocks from my Lower East Side apartment called Barrio Chino. It had some of the best margaritas I’d ever tasted (oh, man, that habanero grapefruit one nearly burned my tongue off!) and served up solid Mexican fare, but perhaps the real reason I quickly became a barfly there was the genuine, warm hospitality I received the staff, especially from bartender Fidel Vazquez.
Always happy and smiling, Vazquez instantly made me feel welcome. He greets some regulars with a hug and kiss, as if welcoming guests into his own home, and after a couple of cocktails, there might suddenly be a complimentary shot (or two... or three...) before you. As a girl new to the city, it was part of what made me feel at home in New York.
Vazquez is still there, creating regulars with that same warmth, making some of the best margaritas in town, hosting a quasi Mexican Cheers show.
The Daily Meal: Where are you from originally? How long have you been living in Brooklyn?
Fidel Vazquez: Originally from Mexico City, and [I have] now been living in Brooklyn for eight years.
TDM: So, how did you end up becoming a bartender?
FV: I came to New York City when I was 9 years old. My dad was a chef so I kind of grew up in the industry. By the time college hit, I was not really sure if it was for me so I decided to take a year off and work in the industry while I figure out what I wanted to do. [I] never turned back.
TDM: How long have you been a tending bar?
FV: About eight years now.
TDM: Where/when was your first gig? How many bar jobs have you had?
FV: My first bartending job was at Suba [now closed]. It was this Spanish tapas place in the Lower East Side. After that, I have collaborated with many friends opening bars, doing private events, throwing parties, consulting. I loose track.
TDM: For you, what’s the best perk of being a bartender?
FV: Meeting people. I love the amount of different characters you can meet in one night. It also gives me the flexibility and time to work and collaborate with other people on projects.
TDM: You used to be a drummer in a band, right? Tell me about that.
FV: I’m still a drummer in a band. It's called Matte Black. It's a trio from Brooklyn, and we just released our first record, "Lowlands." You can check it out at matteblackband.com.
TDM: So, you’ve been at Barrio Chino for a while. How long has it been? When did it open?
FV: It’s weird; with Barrio you never count years. Time goes by, and you don’t feel it. I think I’ve been there for six years, and Barrio opened about 10 years ago. I guess it opened in 2003.
TDM: What do you enjoy most about Barrio?
FV: The atmosphere. You might be too young for this, but it reminds me of Cheers, the TV show, but the Mexican version. Maybe I should pitch that to a network? The Mexican Cheers. Joke aside, I used to hang out here before I got the position, and I really love that when you were at Barrio, you felt like it was someone’s living room, and you were the host of the party.
TDM: It seems like the staff doesn’t change much…
FV: You are right. That takes me back to the thing I said about how when you get to Barrio, time seems to stop, in a delightful way.
TDM: It also seems like the margarita flavors never change (not that I’m complaining!). Is there a reason?
FV: My dad always said, "Why fix something that’s not broken?" Our guests also pretty much know what they come for. Sometimes they don’t even look at the menu.
TDM: What margaritas do you favor? What are guest favorites?
FV: I’m a simple guy so I drink tequila neat or on the rocks, but when I have a margarita I usually go for the jalapeño-infused margarita [jalapeño-infused tequila, lime juice, orange juice, orange liqueur] or the grapefruit margarita [tequila, grapefruit juice, lime juice, orange liqueur]. Our guests mostly go for the grapefruit margarita, top-shelf margarita, jalapeño margarita or the tamarind margarita [fresh tamarind mix, tequila reposado, lime juice, orange liqueur, orange juice].
TDM: In what ways do you think Barrio stands out from other Lower East Side locales?
FV: I think at the end it’s a combination of the simplicity of the place, atmosphere, and friendly staff. We [have] also been on the block for 10 years so people have gotten to know Barrio Chino and the staff on a personal level.
TDM: What are your favorite cocktails to make? And why?
FV: At Barrio, I will say the grapefruit margarita. It’s so refreshing, [especially] on a hot, summer day. Also, I like to do different things that are not on the menu, pick up fresh ingredients and come up with something new the day of.
TDM: What spirit is sexiest to you and why?
FV: I [have] been messing around with St. Germain. I really like it: The way it blends with another spirit when you mix it properly, muddle fresh ingredients, add a good, fresh citrus and soda water. It adds a refreshing taste.
TDM: For you, which spirit is the most versatile?
FV: Is that a trick question? [Laughs] It always depends what are you making. For me, it always changes.
TDM: When brainstorming a new recipe, what’s one aspect you’re particularly striving for?
FV: I always start with three flavors that I have in mind and go from there. I always try to make all of the components work together and complement each other. Right now, I’m digging cucumber and mint. Trying to find my third ingredient.
TDM: So, if we want to buy you a drink at your favorite bar, where would we find you? And what would we order for you?
FV: You can find me at Little Branch, and you can totally buy me El Guapo drink [tequila reposado, limes, brown sugar, Cholula hot sauce, lime juice, soda water] — it's spicy, citrus, and delicious. [Especially] if Cervantes is behind the bar; he’s one of my favorite mixologists in the city.