As many food establishments have closed, count a new kind of corner store on Nob Hill among the Phoenix stories to arise from the ashes of quarantine. On the corner of Leavenworth and Sacramento, Tahona Mercado is a purveyor of fine agave spirits that also features great products from small local producers.
Tahona Mercado is the vision of Steven Sadri, Emily Sadri, and Marsilio Gabuardi. The trio met while working at the now-shuttered Cala in Hayes Valley. Steven and Emily recently carried their relationship all the way to the altar, but first, they took a sojourn to San Diego where they opened Tahona in 2018. Tahona, named for the large volcanic stone wheel pulled by horse or bull in a circle over roasted agave to make mezcal, quickly drew national attention as an agave spirits bar featuring thematic tastings of both classics and new waves.
While mezcal has long had a variety of nasty associations—everything from the spring break worm at the bottom of the bottle to conflations with mescaline—it has emerged as one of the hottest spirits over the past decade. When something gets name-checked in cultural products as diverse as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and For All Mankind, you know there’s a trend. But it’s more than just a flash in the pan; mezcal is one of the most traditional spirits the world has to offer.
Mezcal is a specific appellation of agave spirits that must be certified to have “mezcal” on the label (similar to how all champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is champagne). There are people in Mexico who make agave spirits as they have been made for hundreds of years whether they can call the result “mezcal,” one of the local traditional names such as “raicilla” or “bacanora,” or just “agave spirit” because they can’t or don’t want to work with certifying authorities.
There has never been a better time to drink mezcal and other agave spirits because the median level of quality is so high and there are so many varieties to try. Lucky for us, the Bay Area is one of the best places to try them. We have fantastic retail outlets such as K&L Wine Merchants, The Epicurean Trader, Healthy Spirits, Gemini Bottle Co., and now, Tahona Mercado. Plus, there’s a bar scene that will allow you to sample mezcals straight or in stunning creative cocktails at places such as Loló, ABV, and Junior. And that’s just to get started. Ask your local bartender or liquor store for their favorites; the people stocking the shelves are frequently out-and-out mezcal obsessives.
While at Cala and Tahona, Steven Sadri indulged in his passion for the spirit, learning all he could and imparting that to grateful patrons. When quarantine turned everything upside down, he launched a virtual tasting series on Instagram every Friday night where people could order a kit featuring the mezcals of that week, pick them up, and have something like the bar experience back in their life in the midst of the pandemic. For Steven, the opportunity for people to ask about cool bottles and order unique spirits prompted the question “what could we create as a model that would push this project forward?”
The idea for Tahona Mercado had been gestating for a while, as had their longing to return to San Francisco, so when they moved back to the Bay in late 2020 (and got married in Emily’s parents’ backyard), things kicked into high gear. In February of 2021, they got the keys to the corner location that used to house neighborhood stalwart Chico’s. COVID was still raging, so they opened with a table at the front door—a kind of soft opening so that they could get things together and meet the neighborhood.
They soon came to appreciate just what a neighborhood institution Chico’s had been—so trusted it had a wall full of customers’ keys for in-apartment grocery drop-offs.
Today that wall is an expansive display of the best agave spirits Mexico produces ranging from rare bottles of the highest quality such as Marco Ochoa’s Gusto Historico—a small and extremely limited line of mezcals produced in the most painstakingly manual fashion—to more widely available options such as Vago. They will feature exclusive batches of mezcal monthly “to create a marketplace producers can count on for support,” as Steven explains it.
Small batch mezcal is exactly that, with one distiller producing unique 100- to 200-liter batches. Once the batch is gone, everything that went into it—close to a decade of rains and sunsets, the specific distilling conditions, a distiller’s ideas at the time—all disappears into the glass. To continue producing in the traditional way and to pass that heritage onto the next generation, mezcal producers require stable markets such as Tahona Mercado.
But the mercado part of the name offers more than agave spirits. There are some amazing representatives of the burgeoning Mexican wine scene such as Bichi and Mexican microbreweries such as Agua Mala. Marsilio Gabuardi, who managed Cala’s bar and worked in Guadalajara’s bar scene, works alongside Steven to create cocktail kits with stellar Bay Area produce. Now, all the creative energy that drew regulars back to Cala will be in kits you can tote home to your bar or kitchen counter.
As restaurants shuttered, chefs were pushed to re-envision their lives, and that pent-up creative culinary energy is on full display at Tahona Mercado. “We’re really excited to work with all the producers and talent in the Bay,” says Emily. That includes locals such as Emmanuel Galvan whose COVID project was Bolita, freshly milled masa rendered into amazing tortillas that feature the full flavor of the corn he nixtamalizes along with other local ingredients such as cilantro and serrano peppers ground right into the masa. Tahona Mercado also sells Raquel Goldman’s exquisite pastries (her Norte 54 pastry box was another COVID development alongside Rize Up Bakery’s fresh loaves) and has a close relationship with La Cocina producers past and present such as Don Bugito. There are snacks, tortas, quesadillas, and all sorts of fun things in-between.
With one of the best mezcal selections in the area, intriguing local food, enthusiastic hosts, and a vibrant neighborhood, Tahona Mercado is a shining example of what can happen to the classic corner store. It often seems as if San Francisco’s corner stores are on the way to extinction, but concepts like Tahona Mercado show these third spaces, with everything great about the urban experience packed into a tiny corner bursting with life, have plenty of life in them for the 21st century.
—Max Garrone is a co-founder of the Mezcalistas