J.D. Rothberg sold Napa River Grill last year to free up more time and pile up more cash to develop his Wild Eggs concept. Breakfast and lunch restaurants would get his sole attention—until he and business partner Shane Hall had a tequila epiphany.
No, not some Hunter Thompsonesque demonic hallucination after a long night’s over-consumption of cheap agave juice, but a realization that no Louisville restaurant offered a large selection of premium and ultra-premium tequilas alongside contemporary Mexican food.
“Shane and I went to Orlando and spent some time at a restaurant where there were 350 tequila selections,” Rothberg recalled. One of those was a rare Don Julio extra añejo that cost $275 per shot and was held in a crystal bottle. “I had to see what a tequila that expensive would taste like, and it was unbelievable. That experience inspired us to come back to Louisville and do this project.”
That project is named Wild Rita’s Modern Mexican & Tequila Bar, located at 445 E. Market St. and set to open Feb. 3.
Incidentally, that’s just a week after the Jan. 27 opening of the downtown Louisville Wild Eggs, and two weeks before they open a Wild Eggs in Lexington, a pace of openings wild enough to drive a person to drown themselves in tequila!
Tony Efstratiadis is captaining the kitchen (while also overseeing the downtown Wild Eggs) and drawing on his own Mexican heritage to create a menu rooted in tradition but given modern twists.
Dishes include molcajetes (stews of shrimp, chicken, beef, chorizo and spicy tomato chili sauce), mussels con chorizo poached in Mexican lager, adobe-rubbed, slow-roasted pork shoulder with salsa verde and chipotle raspberry sauce, and a chuleta: a grandé 23-ounce pork chop with rib and belly meat still attached.
According to Rothbergh, Efstratiadis will utilize the wood-fired oven originally installed to make pizzas at Primo and then Mozz to sear meats and finish dishes.
“We’ll do our Mexican pizzas and quesadillas in there on the stone deck, too, and we’ll finish a lot of dishes like our chile relleños and enchiladas in it,” Rothberg said. “You find that style of cooking in Mexico, and that oven will impart a little smoke flavor.”
With the help of Ann Swope Design Group, Rothberg said the dining room has been completely re-carpeted and repainted with bright colors common to Mexican residences.
The bar area now has a community table (where Mozz’s pasta station was located), and the bar will be backlit with glass shelves to highlight all that fantastic tequila.
According to Hall, the list includes 69 tequilas and 14 mezcals. (Though essentially the same spirit, mezcal makers slow-roast agave piñas over a wood fire, which gives it its characteristic smoky note. Tequila makers oven-roast or steam their piñas.) By his count, the only other restaurant in town with a large number of tequilas is Manny & Merle, which has a solid 36. (Update: Manny & Merle owner Tony Palombino sent me the restaurant’s tequila list this morning, and it includes 68 choices. I apologize for the oversight, yet I’ll drink to it all the same.)
“We want to offer lots of tequila flights and (premium) shots,” Hall said. Flights of tequilas will vary widely in cost from the teens to more than $100. One option is the Flight of Famous Tequilas, which includes three celebrity-backed tastes of Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo, George Clooney’s Casamigos, and Justin Timberlake’s Sauza 901 Silver.
Plenty of lower-end affordable shots will be available, but if you want a premium experience, high-end shots can cost between $75 to $175. Customers can order shots (which really should be sipped slowly, not gulped) accompanied by unique salts flavored with candied jalapenos and serranos, or sweet tastes of cinnamon-accented orange slices. They’ll rim your margarita with those salts as well.
Rothberg said to expect craft cocktails as part of Wild Rita’s bar program, but “not to the extent that we’ll be squeezing juice fresh for every drink. All our syrups will be made in house, though, which is something Levi Donaldson, a local mixologist, will oversee.”
Unique to Louisville will be Wild Rita’s use of whole barrels (around 200 750ml bottles’ worth each) of Maestro Dobel Blanco to use in cocktails. It will also sell tequila by the bottle—yep, the whole thing if you want it.
Should customers not finish the whole bottle (and staffers will monitor consumption closely, Hall said), they’ll be able to tag their bottle and keep it in a cage to sip from on a return trip. Expect the price markup on most bottles to be less than 100 percent of retail, Hall added.
“I don’t know who might buy it, but we’ll be selling Gran Patron’s Burdeos Añejo for $1,100 a bottle,” Hall said. “Louisville’s a convention city, and we want those visitors to have a place where they can try the best tequila they’ve ever had. … We also want to build a following locally and start doing tequila classes like they do for wine and bourbon here.”