Smile Politely

Maize’s tequila tasting event had elegant al fresco eats

On the table at Maize's tequila dinner, there are several summer salads plated with brightly colored edible flowers ready to be served. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Tasting dinners are having a moment at restaurants in Champaign-Urbana right now, and I love to see it. Little tastes of special dishes are fun with little sips of special drinks. Food and drink were meant to be enjoyed together. At these tasting dinners, there’s no choosing the dish or beverage; the food and drink come out as chef intended, and everyone has the same thing.

I attended last Thursday’s tasting dinner with tequila pairings on the patio at Maize at The Station, and it was beautiful.

An overhead photo of the table at Maize's tequila dinner shows the Don Julio tequila tasting mat with the first glass of Don Julio 70 poured. There is a blue runner with a vase of baby's breath flowers. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

The event looked like a wedding reception, and the happy couple was Don Julio and Maize at The Station. On the table, branded placemats listed each tequila pairing in the order of tasting. I began the night with minimal tequila knowledge, and when it ended, I learned so much about tequila, these five bottles, and the process of making tequila. My main conclusion was that I very much like expensive tequila.

The table setting for the tequila dinner at Maize has five fluted glasses with small pours of Don Julio tequila. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

The event’s tequila tasting was led by a Don Julio rep. While the speaker talked about casks and flavors, we smelled and sniffed before tasting, and it felt fancy.

A white table has many prepared colorful summer salads with edible flowers and small silver cups of tequila vinaigrette. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Much of the dinner was prepared and plated on the patio as diners watched.

A blue corn tortilla chip boat holds guacamole with a broken chip sticking out of the top on a banana leaf-lined plate at Maize's tequila dinner. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Before the five-course dinner began, servers passed out guacamole in a crispy blue corn tortilla bowl. A great first bite, it was like eating a big scoop of guac on a big chip. I thought the little blue boat was so cute. With chopped onion and summer tomato, Maize’s creamy avocado clung to the corn chip, and I liked the bright lime finish.

A white square bowl has two shrimp skewered on a bamboo pick over a chilled avocado soup. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Chilled Avocado Soup with Grilled Shrimp + Don Julio 70

The first course of the tasting dinner was a chilled avocado soup with creme fraîche, tail-on shrimp, and chicharrones. Pairing well with tequila, the grilled shrimp were yummy, and the pork rind added a flavorful crunch. The chilled soup was thick and silky smooth avocado, and I really liked it as a dip for the shrimp and crispy chicharrones.

The author's salad has edible flowers of orange, yellow, purple, and white plus sliced strawberries, oranges, and mixed greens. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Floral Citrus Summer Salad with a Tequila Vinaigrette + Don Julio Rosado

With tequila vinaigrette served on the side, the salad had mixed greens with sliced strawberries, oranges, and edible flowers of white, yellow, orange, and purple. The salad’s bright colors were inviting, and I enjoyed nibbling the different flowers. The light tequila vinaigrette (obviously) went nicely with the pink tequila, and the blossoms accentuated the rosado’s floral notes and fruity characteristics.

An overhead photo of the third course of Maize's tequila dinner: the pork belly on a mole sauce with charred corn kernels. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Mole Pork Belly + Don Julio Primavera

The third course was mole pork belly, and it was absolutely incredible. This was an ode to pork belly if there ever was one. Braised and seared, the pork belly’s rendered fat was melt-in-my-mouth tender while the seared edges were crispy like bacon. The fatty hunk of pork stood delicious on its own, but atop Maize’s housemade mole sauce, it was next level. That mole added a yummy, smoky sweetness to the pork belly, and the sprinkle of charred sweet corn was so good.

The tequila pairing for this was Don Julio Primavera, a reposado tequila finished in orange wine casks; the agave and citrus flavors of the tequila tasted wonderful with the mole.

On the griddle, there are horizontally sliced bones being finished for the fourth course of the tequila tasting dinner. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

With 50+ horizontally-sliced bones grilling feet right there on the patio, the wafting aromas teased Maize’s the fourth course: taco de tuétano.

On a brown plate, there is a horizontally sliced bone with bone marrow topped with birra beef, cilantro, and onions. There is a wedge of lime and two tortillas. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Taco De Tuétano + Don Julio 1942

Paired with Don Julio 1942, the taco de tuétano was — pardon my French — fucking delicious. Birria meat atop unctuous marrow on an actual bone was epic. Served simply with two from-scratch corn tortillas (yellow and blue) and lime, it was the most boss build-your-own taco I’ve ever had. I scraped the tuétano from the bone into a tortilla with the beef. The marrow was melty and gelatinous in the best way, and with the tender birria and soft tortilla, it created a luscious textural bite unlike any taco I’ve had before.

Before our plates were cleared, shots of Don Julio tequila appeared out of nowhere — it happened too quickly for a photo. They encouraged us to do a marrow bone luge shot (pour a tequila shot down the bone and into one’s mouth). Truly a highlight of the evening, we all did it. Besides being fun, it was cool how the tequila picked up flavors of the remaining decadent marrow.

On a brown square plate, there are two slices of watermelon with queso fresca and candied jalapeños. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Grilled Watermelon Salad + Don Julio Ultima Reserva

Finally, the dessert course: grilled watermelon drizzled with agave syrup plus candied jalapeños and queso fresco. The in-season watermelon and candied jalapeño battled on the palate: cold, sweet, refreshing melon versus spicy, caramelized pepper, and the fresh cheese was the thing to bring it all together.

The summer dessert was paired with Don Julio Ultima Reserva tequila, the nicest tequila of the night. Of course, the tequila tasted amazing, which tracks with its pricetag and limited quantity. The watermelon dessert didn’t compete with the tequila’s glam; the Ultima Reserva was the star, and the grilled melon with queso and peppers was a superb supporting snack.

Alyssa Buckley

All five of these tequilas were much better than any tequila I’ve tried — because (for the most part) tequila and I have a vaca relationship. As such, most tequila that I’ve had burn on the finish, but these were all very, very smooth.

Outside, Adam Lopez of Maize Mexican Grill prepares the salad course for the tequila dinner on the patio of Maize at The Station. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

Overall, the event was a lovely summer night al fresco. The food was totally delicious and the tequila unbelievable. Plating dishes on the patio and the Don Julio guru (who received applause after each tasting explanation) made the experience feel like dinner and a show.

Outside, Maize prepares bone marrow on an outside griddle for the summer tequila tasting dinner. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.
Alyssa Buckley

We all know C-U’s patio season doesn’t last forever, so it was nice to enjoy an evening outside with pleasant weather (and tequila). Though this was the very first tasting dinner Maize Mexican Grill has ever done, I bet it won’t be the last.

Follow Maize on Facebook to stay up to date on future events.

Maize Mexican Grill at The Station
100 N Chestnut
M-F 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sa 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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