Last week, only four bottles of mezcal remained behind the bar at William & Company—or WillCo as it's known on North Person Street.
"We were depleted after Day of the Dead," bartender Carrie Gephart tells me. Most of the time the bar offers at least eight to ten brands of the Mexican spirit, one that's enjoying a trendy moment on American cocktail menus. But WillCo's not flashy about it.
Liliana Contreras opened the bar after building a career in the service industry. She still shows up as a guest bartender at Five Star, where she got her start. Contreras was an original co-owner of Lucha Tigre in Chapel Hill and Raleigh's first iteration of Calavera.
WillCo celebrated two years in May, and that's where Contreras found her footing as a bar owner true to her roots. The bar glows with details of her native Mexico City, reminiscent of the curated hipster vibes found in the bars and cafes of La Condesa and Roma Norte combined with the more old-school touches of historic neighborhoods like Navarte, where the occasional calavera is less kitsch and more built-in tradition.
Without making a big fuss, Contreras is introducing gringos like us to approachable mezcal cocktails that employ the all-natural techniques used in the bars of Mexico—fresh juices, homemade tinctures, and lots of herbaceous and fruity details.
The bar uses mezcal as a base, experimenting with the above ingredients and seasonal fruit, like prickly pear or sour orange. Contreras likes to play with infusions, too, using the most temperate mezcal style (Vida is a common brand) and letting it steep with heavy-hitting flavors like ginger or ancho chiles. The resulting concoctions are rotating cocktails scrawled in chalk on the specials board.
And there, in the bottom right corner, a permanent special: "Tamales! $2"
That's how WillCo truly echoes the motto you hear at any bar, restaurant, or cafe in Mexico: para servirle.
"A tamalito with a mezcalito, it's very delcious," says Coco Castro, who makes WillCo's tamales. Castro is a full-time prep cook at Five Star restaurant. She makes the tamales a few times a week either before her shift, around five-thirty a.m., or afterward in the early evenings.
She's from the small town of El Carrizal de Galeana in the state of Oaxaca (where a current statistic claims just eighty-three residents). With a laugh, she swears that you can't find tamales like hers elsewhere in Raleigh. And she's right, because I don't know where else to get a simple tamalito with a little mezcal (or a lot) at any other neighborhood bar. The tamales come with zero frills, individually packaged in aluminum foil and wrapped in banana leaf.
The four-cheese version is indulgent, but my favorite are Castro's chicken tamales. They are slim (I could eat four for dinner) but packed with enough chicken to feel like the protein fuels you for your next drink, while the dough absorbs any potential hangover. The chicken tamales are made traditionally, with lard, but that's swapped for oil in the cheese version.
Mezcal works with spice, bringing out savory notes to the chile-forward mole Castro uses as a base for her chicken tamales.
"You know that our Oaxacan mole is very different, right?" she asks me.
I've tried eight different Oaxacan-style moles myself (and only attempted to replicate two recipes, which took half a day each to make). But I can only begin to understand its complexities.
Castro won't reveal many of her cooking secrets. Except she does divulge that the laborious process requires a blend of ancho, guajillo, and chile de arbol—and she doesn't remove the seeds. It all goes into the mix, giving the tamales a super hard kick.
My favorite combination right now is a tamal enjoyed with the Naked and Famous, a grapefruit-focused drink that balances with a nice acidity. Activated charcoal is trending on cocktail lists. It's not my thing—the charcoal subdues flavors. Plus, with mezcal the smoky complement is too on-the-nose. But WillCo's Smoke Signal may have me jumping on the bandwagon. It's muddled with lemon and fresh basil, complementing the Mezcal Vago Espadín.
On any given day, the scene at WillCo could start with a sidewalk space turned parking spot for strollers as moms take a break (Contreras named the bar after her son) and roll into the night with packs of American Spirits cluttering outdoor tabletops and friends canoodling on the couches. Tamales are the perfect complement to this already cozy neighborhood bar.