New York City’s best bartenders don’t have a lot of time off. But when they do get a chance to go out, they know the best bars, the best places to eat, and all the late night spots. In VinePair’s new Night Out series, we’ll be speaking with some of the top bartenders in the city to learn what they do when they aren’t hard at work. Consider this your guide to the perfect night out.
Meet Alex Valencia, the founder of La Contenta, an upscale cocktail bar and Mexican restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Alex is a humble guy, not one to brag about the manifold drink offerings La Contenta serves. “We do what we can with what we have,” he tells me.
But doing what he can with what he has is more than what many bar-only locations in the city can do. One side of La Contenta has a row of tables. The other side has a bar filled with more bottles of tequila and mezcal than I can count, plus three barrels of tequila aging behind the bar, and four bottles of Pappy Van Winkle.
La Contenta opened in 2015 after Alex had accrued an impressive resume. He moved from Guadalajara, Mexico in 2000, started working as a bartender in 2006, and worked with bartenders from renowned places like PDT, Little Branch, The Flatiron Room, Bathtub Gin, and Apotheke starting in 2008. He was named one of New York’s best bartenders in 2015 in TimeOut and local publications, and has his original recipes published in cocktail books.
Now he’s deeply invested in La Contenta and the entire Lower East Side community. Here are his suggestions for the perfect night out.
Where to eat
Alex’s wife doesn’t drink, but he loves going to Mexican restaurants on the Lower East Side with his wife and daughter. One of their favorites is Cosme, a Mexican restaurant in Flatiron with generous portions, local ingredients, and a large tequila and mezcal bar. Another favorite is Casa Enrique, as well as bars that serve food as well like Bathtub Gin, and PDT.
Wherever he goes, he gets a couple plates to share.
Where to drink cocktails
“One of the classic places I like to go is Pegu Club,” Alex says. “I love that bar, and one of my dreams is to one of these days work with them. Since I started going there almost 10 years ago, it’s always been quality, quality, quality. I love the variation of the Pisco Punch they have.”
He also suggests The WayLand in Alphabet City for a cocktail you can trust, Botanic Lab in the Lower East Side for a late-night cocktail, and Casa Mezcal for a good sipping mezcal.
Where to drink beer
The Back Room
“I have many beer bars I love,” Alex says, referring to the number of beer gardens near the Lower East Side. “It’s not really about the drink — it’s about the company for me.”
One of his favorites is the Back Room on the Lower East Side, which is a Prohibition-style bar that serves beer in paper bags and cocktails in teacups. There’s also Tacombi, which is a casual Mexican food spot with locations in Nolita, Greenwich, and Flatiron. For a properly poured Guinness and an incredible cocktail list, Alex likes Suffolk Arms on the Lower East Side.
How to afford a good night out
“To be honest, cocktails are a luxury,” Alex tells me. “That’s why what I do is I go out with four or three different friends and we try four or five different cocktails and we don’t have to spend all the money.”
What to get when you go to La Contenta
Alex is particular when it comes to his tequila. As far as tequila bars go, he hasn’t found anything that can compare to Mexico, where the bartenders are happy to help educate people about the drinks and the cocktails. But that’s what La Contenta is for.
Take the Jalisco Express cocktail, for example, which is named after a train in Guadalajara that takes people to the valleys where the agave fields are. Alex’s cocktail is made with jalapeño, mint, cucumber, and Tres Agaves tequila.
“It’s a little refreshing,” Alex says. “It’s a Mexican experience in New York City, and I try to get all of that into the drink.”
Or just tell Alex or any of the other people behind the bar at La Contenta what flavors you like best. They’ll be sure to create your next favorite drink.