The new sign at the corner of 16th Street and Penn Avenue in the Strip District tells the story: Cafetano, known for its Honduran coffee, paninis and baked goods, is now SoLuna, an appropriate portmanteau of sun (sol) and moon (luna).
Morning visitors might not see much of a change — same menu, same staff, same hours. But later in the day, SoLuna will offer a second act.
After 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, the venue’s upstairs space will become a specialty mezcal bar, giving locals a chance to sample and learn more about the age-old elixir and its traditions.
Education will be key to the SoLuna experience, says Director of Operations Juan Gutierrez. “We want to show customers how it’s made,” he says.
A short cheat sheet: Tequila is a type of mezcal, not the other way around. All mezcal is made from the agave plant, in one of six Mexican states. (Oaxaca produces the most.) Tequila is made from blue agave, while mezcal can come from a variety of agaves. The agave heart is roasted in an in-ground clay oven for mezcal, while tequila agave is steamed. Tequila makers are permitted to add sugar or other ingredients. Mezcal must be pure agave. Blue agave can be harvested as soon as five years after planting. Mezcal agave plants can take 22 years or more to mature.
“In Oaxaca, they say you plant the agave so your grandson can drink the mezcal,” Gutierrez says.
SoLuna will import mezcal from an artisanal source in Oaxaca. The overseer of the process — in this case the maestra mezcalera — is a woman, which is unusual in Mexico, according to Gutierrez.
The handmade, labor-intensive craft of creating mezcal comes at a cost, Gutierrez concedes. “It is not a cheap drink. It’s an experience.”
He estimates that a flight of three or four small samples will cost about $30. SoLuna expects to offer espadin mezcal, as well as the higher-end tepeztate and tobala varieties.
Pittsburgh native Christy Allison, who owns SoLuna’s holding company with her husband Carl and partner Dylan Thomas, is excited to bring authentic mezcal to town.
“My (Pittsburgh) people are the most open and welcoming,” she says.
Christy first tried mezcal in a cocktail, and fell in love with its smooth, smoky taste.
“I’m not a big drinker,” she says. “Mezcal is my thing.”
Cocktails will be part of the nighttime SoLuna menu, along with mezcal flights and tastings. Gutierrez says they have hired a bartender who comes from The Aviary, restaurateur Grant Achatz’s popular cocktail bar in Chicago. Local craft beer and wine will be available as well.
Gutierrez and his staff are putting together a small menu of Latin American and Spanish tapas to accompany the drinks. Among the offerings will be chapulín (roasted grasshopper), a popular Mexican bar snack.
On a related note, SoLuna’s mezcal will not feature worms; Gutierrez says that’s a tourist gimmick. However, patrons can ask to have their cocktail glasses rimmed with sal de gusano chamoy, a Oaxacan salt made from toasted and ground agave worms and chiles.
During the day, SoLuna will continue to operate the coffee shop during the transition. The SoLuna team hopes to have the mezcal bar open by Thanksgiving — once they clear the hurdles of Pennsylvania liquor importation laws.
“This isn’t going to be a ‘bar’ bar,” Gutierrez says. “It’s definitely more of a cocktail lounge.” Or, as Carl Allison says he envisions, “Tinder date central.”