Just about every country in the world does death better than America. Last week I was tutoring a group of kindergarteners in their library. One looked up at a fourth-grade poster project on X-ray technology, saw a bluish illuminated skull and screamed, covering her face. A second followed suit. A third shrugged, "Whatever. That's just what's under your skin."
In Mexico, life and death are interwoven, even celebrated, as in the Day of the Dead, when families craft—then eat!—calaveras: skulls made of sugar to represent those who have died that year.
Heavy stuff, and what the hell does this have to do with restaurants? Now you'll understand why a decorative platter of edible skulls greets you at the door of Calavera Empanada & Tequila Bar.
A few other things you'll want to know: Calavera is open nearly all the time and until 2 a.m., even though it doesn't always appear to be. Its signage at the corner of Raleigh's Blount and Davie streets is subtle, its outdoor tables unoccupied (on four visits). And unlike competitors that pack tables windowside in order to appear lively and booming, Calavera's dining area is tucked away upstairs.
The first floor contains only a tiny bar, four stools and two bar tables. If the bartender happens to be upstairs delivering an order, you could walk into an empty room. Yet, there's an alluring "in the know" feeling about Calavera. So be bold. Stomp upstairs, seat yourself and imperiously peer down at all the unfortunates strolling by who have not yet discovered what you have.
At Calavera they do two things and do them well. Choose from 11 varieties of empanada and up to 36 tequilas—30 on the menu, plus whatever exotics have come in that week. If you're lucky enough to snag a seat at the bar, ask your bartender to pour a flight of three tequilas ($15), served in mini snifters alongside palate-cleansing shots of housemade sangrita ("little blood," like amped-up tomato juice with a twist of citrus).
For those with limited tequila experience, stow that shot glass and pay attention. Blanco is the youngest and lightest in color, with generally the brightest flavor. Reposado retains the bite that tequila is known for, but after being "rested" for up to a year, smoothes out nicely. Añejo, barrel-aged for a year or more, can be as smoky and deep as Scotch, with caramel notes.
A couple down the bar watches as the bartender lines up my flight. "There's no sipping!" the tattoo-breasted woman warns with a smile, her bangs veiling dark eyes. She's on her second Cucumber Margarita ($8) and recommends it ("Not like one of those fake-tasting pear drinks!").
Later, I ask about the Spicy Margarita with Jimador tequila, housemade habanero/ jalapeño syrup and fresh lime and orange juices. But when the bartender fetches the squeeze-bottle of pepper syrup, it's nearly empty, the syrup and sliced peppers at equal height. "Oops, this one might be a little spicy," he laughs.
The Cucumber, then. No salt (says he). It's delicate, summerlike, tequila at its gentlest. Something fresca at a punk rock day spa. On top, a thin-cut lime mates with a slivered cucumber. Bite both.
Calavera's Cilantro Jalapeño Margarita may become my go-to drink, a fine balance of heat and herb, but the Mojito Calavera is a springtime must. Its fresh mint is delicious but the real treat is the sugar cane swizzle stick. (I found the mandarin-flavored mojito far too sweet. Keep with tradition.)
Even with $3 Tecate and $5 Spanish and Latin wines by the glass, it's likely your bar bill is likely to exceed your food tab. Empanadas are only $3 each, baked in vegan-friendly puff pastry, with a wealth of fillings to choose from. Poblano Loco (tequila-marinated poblanos with Duranguense melting cheese) was my favorite of the meatless. It tasted more substantial than Holy Frijoles (black beans, sweet potatoes, Oaxacan cheese), whose flavors were slightly muddled.
In a head-to-head pork test, I did not expect to find solid Carolina 'cue at a tequila bar, but the Piggly Wiggly (slow-smoked pulled pork) was a vinegary masterpiece, acid and spice cutting through the pastry. New Mexicana (New Mexico chili-roasted pork) was a close second, with depth-charged heat.
At lunch, choose a combination of two empanadas ($5.99), one plus salad ($6.99) or three ($7.99), including a nonalcoholic drink such as fruity Jarritos. Cinnamon-sprinkled dessert empanadas, such as the mindblowing King of Kong (banana/ Nutella), Manza-Manza (apple/ ginger) or Key Lime, arrive wisely a few minutes after your savory dishes. "The heart of the kitchen," says co-owner Kenneth Yowell, is Socorro "Coco" Castro, "an empanada-making machine."
Calavera does not have a freezer, a point of pride. If it can't be served immediately or refrigerated, it won't be made. The menu is slim beyond empanadas. Supplement your meal with a basket of tortilla chips and fresh guacamole ($6.99) or a salad (full portion, $9.99; half, $4.50). The Cava Vinaigrette salad fills a tapas plate with egg, red onion, tomato and garbanzo beans, while the Cilantro Lime salad overflows with roasted red pepper, bacon, avocado and Oaxacan cheese.
Calavera is a labor of local love. David and Lily Ballance and their friend Kenneth Yowell have worked in Raleigh establishments for years (Five Star, Havana Deluxe, Mosquito, White Collar), but this is their first collective stab at management/ ownership.
Lily was raised in Mexico City and moved to North Carolina in her teens. Last year, she toured her homeland to gather extravagant Mexicana for Calavera's décor: On a blood-red wall, religious candles are suspended in a web of Christmas lights; at the top of the stairs, a spare, geometric cabinet holds garishly painted calaveras and a papier-mâché skeleton. In the bar, shelves of liquor bottles are backlit on gravestone wallpaper. Lily's grandmother and great aunt donated family heirlooms for good luck, including her great-grandmother's clay "chocolate cup" and a picture of a saint collected from the church where Lily was baptized.
I like that I can drink a Modelo here while reciting a prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the saint of health and remedies, from my tabletop candle holder: "Look upon us so that we don't disgust you through our sins; rather, keep your promise to aid and favor us."
I also like that I now know to say em-pan-ah-da, not em-pan-ya-da. Some restaurants need no translation. They are conventional, easy to navigate. At Calavera, you may need a road map, but what a trip.
This article appeared in print with the headline "¡Salud!"
Correction (April 4, 2012): Calavera is open for dinner Sundays as well.