It’s Halloween. Just inside Leyenda, a latin themed cocktail bar in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Renée Serra of Arte Salon is painting the face of bartender Sam Johnson—Catrina style—courtesy of Altos Tequila. Ivy Mix, the proprietor of Leyenda, smiles brightly, and offers me a pumpkin spice margarita (yes, you read that correctly). I overcome my instinctive resistance to “all things pumpkin” that taints each passing autumn, and sit to have my own face painted. As I sneak sips of this surprisingly balanced libation (between Dandy Dillinger’s careful application of glitter to my eyelids) I muse aloud: this drink is effing delicious.
It would be a misnomer to call Leyenda a tequila bar. “This is very much a Brooklyn bar,” says Mix. “Too often people open bars without thinking about what the neighborhood really wants.” In Mix’s esteemed opinion, the ‘hood was “aching for a Latin themed bar, one that recognized the prominence of Latin culture in Brooklyn. There are a million tequila bars; at Leyenda we celebrate the entirety of Latin culture.”
I consider her words as I consider the menu, which is a virtual cornucopia of Central and South American delicacies. Pupasas from El Salvador. Ceviche from Peru Arepas from Venezuela. And spirits from all across the southern hemisphere. “There’s a terroir of culture represented in food and spirits. Cuisine from this part of the world gives us a great opportunity to explore different cultures. Our Latin is all encompassing” says Mix. “We’re more than tacos and tequila. Leyenda is representative of the cultures I adore, and the values represented in their cuisine: fiery, spirited, vivacious.”
In describing the menu of Leyenda, Ivy mix is (unintentionally) describing herself.
What To Order
Summer Brooke (of Purity Vodka) and I begin with spinach manchego empanadas, and guacamole served in an avocado shell. We pair this with the house Margarita, which is an act of casual perfection. “The biggest mistake many bars can make is thinking of food as an afterthought,” says Mix. “Good cocktails paired with horrible food doesn’t work and vice versa, so we try to do all things well.”
I’m trying to think of a synonym for “understatement” as the next course arrives. The ceviche, replete with pomegranate seeds, green apple, and candied ginger, is effortlessly the finest I’ve ever tasted. The churrasco skirt steak topped with Argentinian chimichurri is done to perfection. The tequila-flamed shrimp arepa are a thing of wonder: perfectly golden-crusted outside, cloud-like fluffiness inside, topped with pineapple salsa, and gently bathed in heat by someone who admires yet respects chiles.
Chef Sue Torres (formerly of Suenos) is clearly conducting symphonies in Leyenda’s kitchen.
“I got into this business because of my time living in Guatemala. I really fell in love with it,” says Mix. “Frequently, when people think ‘Latin spirits’ they only think tequila or mezcal, when the category is actually much, much bigger.” The evidence of her beliefs is abundantly present: piscos, cachaças, and rums (do not try to tell Ivy Mix that rums are not essentially Latin in origin) dominate her back bar.
The back bar at Leyenda is yet another expression of Ivy Mix’s vivacity. Instead of opting for the traditional “typewriter liquor bottle layout”— and faced with certain structural challenges — Mix opted for a statement piece. “In Guatemala” she explains “they keep figurines of deities in wooden boxes called escaparates.” In homage, all of the spirits at Leyenda are housed in actual “spirit boxes” (or wooden boxes designed to resemble them). Reverently interspersed with traditional Latin curios and statuettes, the decor is reminiscent of how your abuela might adorn a cocktail bar. The incandescent bulbs shine upwards towards the tin ceilings, providing a glow soft enough to warm patrons faces, but not so dim as to obscure your ability to see your food or your date. The music is loud enough to distinguish Latin rhythms, but not so loud as to impede intimate conversation. Everything here isthoughtful, and simultaneously insouciant.
pumpkin spice margarita
The hardest part of doing anything extremely well is making it look easy. The cocktail menu at Leyenda is such a thing; combining the technical precision of a painting by Velasquez with the daring whimsy of Salvatore Dali. Mix maintains an excel spreadsheet which she’s named “the flavor spread,” encompassing the complete taste palette — sweet, bitter, savory, fruity, herbal — and designs cocktails around achieving a nuanced, balanced representation of the entire flavor spectrum. The result is a collaborative effort, as bartenders are asked to create cocktails based on whatever colors Mix perceives as being required to add depth and dimension to the carefully curated biannual menu.
The Pancho Perico cocktail is a perfect example of this kind of artistry. The base flavor is poblano pepper, but the heat you’re expecting isn’t there. Instead, it’s replaced with gentle vegetal tones, a touch of sweetness, and underlaid with an entirely unrecognizable bourbon base. For presentation, a banana leaf deftly wraps the interior of a collins glass, brimming with pebbled ice. The Iron In The Fire cocktail is equally audacious, combining mulato chili, Spanish brandy, tawny port, pineapple, lemon, and demerara with a light spritz. It’s bold, light, fragrant, refreshing, and unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.
It is this kind of (invisibly) calculated risk that makes imbibing at Leyenda such a rewarding experience.
Iron in the Fire
Being the only woman to have ever won the coveted “Best American Bartender of the Year” award at Tales of the Cocktail certainly hasn’t hurt Leyenda’s visibility. Mix makes it clear that, while she is honored to have won, a greater honor would be recognition for Leyenda, and not herself alone. “I’m just a small piece here. Everyone matters,” she says, as she names every person in front and back of the house. Her pride is palpable and recognizable in the minutiae of details: the short, stout water glasses that are impervious to toppling, the custom-made candle holders from Guatemala, the super dense ice — made in-house — which stubbornly refuses to melt. Add to this the myriad unseen technical details that allow her bartenders to craft cocktails at breakneck pace with casual aplomb, and you get the feeling this is more than just a bar to Mix.
“Leyenda literally means ’legend’, or ‘saint’ in English,” she informs me, between attending to patrons. “Bars are like church: you go for the sense of community.” Between the pews that have been repurposed as seating, the candles that light the walls, and spirit boxes guarding the alcohol, I’d argue it’s safe to call Leyenda a religious experience.
Spent: $100 (not including gratuity)
Food consumed: guacamole, empanadas, ceviche, Churrasco Skirt Steak, Tequila-flamed Shrimp Arepa,
Cocktails imbibed: Pumpkin Spice Margarita, house Margarita, Iron In the Fire, Witching Hour, Pancho Perico
Go for: Happy hour, 5-7pm weekdays, 12-4pm weekends. $5 Micheledas, $7 cocktails, and of course, insanely delicious tacos.
Go BACK for: Brunch, weekends from 12-4pm. The Unsung Hero of Cobble Hill. Customizable pitchers of sangria, chilaquiles, and other delectables.
221 Smith St, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Open Monday through Friday 5pm-2am.
Seats: 55; additional 20 in backyard.
Accepts dinner and brunch reservations for parties of six or more Sunday – Thursday.
Also available for private parties.
All photos by Jackie Summers.