Tommy's Mexican Restaurant is a homey little joint with red vinyl booths and murals of Mayan ruins. Papa Thomas Bermejo greets customers, while daughter Candy punches the cash register and son Julio presides behind the bar. The roar of ice crushers blends with mariachi brass. The waitress, in a worn T shirt, scuttles about at 78 R.P.M., hoisting platters of sizzling enchiladas.
Hardly the place, one might think, to shell out $350 for a 2-oz. shot of Cuervo Original 1800 Coleccion tequila or savor, as Michael Javaherian did the other night, two small pitchers of margaritas at $115 each. "I'll look at the bill later," he said, as his two colleagues, geologists at an engineering company, raved about the "buttery taste" and "subtlety" of the oak barrel-aged liquor, enlivened only with fresh lime juice and a dash of Triple Sec. "It goes down easy," explained Jacob Henry, who recently got a $300 bottle of Herradura Seleccion Suprema for his 24th birthday.
This San Francisco hangout is an internationally renowned temple of tequila cult. It serves more than 200 brands of the Mexican drink--varieties derived from the juice of the spiky agave plant and far pricier than the sugarcane-diluted rotgut of college frat parties. Tommy's Blue Agave Club, the nation's largest tequila-tasting group, boasts connoisseurs from five continents among its 5,000 members. Julio gives seminars in France, Germany, Hong Kong and Singapore. And when Mexican distillers visit Tommy's, patrons ask for their autographs. "They get rock-star status," he said.
Thanks to the margarita, the U.S. accounts for more than three-quarters of Mexico's tequila exports. Most bars serve mixto tequila--containing only 51% distilled agave juice. But in recent years, as consumers have become more sophisticated, 100% agave varieties have been growing in popularity, with sales rising 12 times as fast as those of cheaper mixes. Even during the past year, when a shortage of agave plants led to price hikes and the recession contributed to a sharp dip in tequila sales, pure-agave brands grew as a proportion of exports. Enthusiasts are flocking to tequila meccas such as Citrus Bar & Grill in Manhattan, Adobe Grill in Chicago, El Carmen in Los Angeles and the Blue Mesa Grill in Dallas.
But none take tequila tippling with as much tongue-in-cheek seriousness as Tommy's. Sidle up to the bar, and the effervescent Julio Bermejo, 43, a political-science graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, launches into Tequila 101. An explanation of the differences among silver (unaged), reposado (aged at least two months) and anejo (aged at least a year) is only the start. Join the club for $10, sample 35 pure-agave brands (no more than three per visit), and you will get an oak-framed "tequila master's" diploma and a T shirt. But to attain a "Ph.D." in tequila studies, you must taste another 35 brands and pass a 70-question written test.
On a recent night, photographer Gary Laufman was telling his date about a tequila flavored with habanero peppers. "I wanted to call 911," he said. "They could use it at Cape Canaveral." Tex Currie, 49, a securities broker, boasted that he could identify 50 tequilas in a blind test. Such aficionados often join Julio's annual tour of distilleries in Jalisco, in central Mexico, where most tequila is made. And the sight of them brings smiles to Mexican farmers, as they scramble to plant more agave.