It’s not often that cocktail bars take a leap of faith into a concept that is highly adventurous, potentially risky, and that involves a considerable amount of prep work and culinary techniques.
But the team at Campfire in Carlsbad, California, has enthusiastically taken on the challenge to deliver nostalgia by way of its road trip-focused cocktail menu.
The menu was inspired by the communal nature of the road trip, where travelers share junk food, gas money, stories, and playlists, usually in a cramped vehicle of sorts. At Campfire, the bar staff is fueled by snacks and goodies that they share with each other on the down-low, which served as a greater inspiration for the concept. “[It] began with a previous Negroni Week menu, where I had done a White Negroni with orange Starburst-infused Suze,” says bar manager Leigh Lacap. “I put a citric acid and salt rim on the glass. I was so amused that I thought we should do a gas station or 7-Eleven menu.”
After getting the entire team behind the concept, Lacap began to dive deeper with hopes to refine it. “I thought about what leads us to the gas stations and liquor stores and what moments revolve around the sharing of these novel and delicious things—being cooped up in a vehicle on a goddamn road trip,” he says.
At this point, the team began its R&D. Bartender Jake Inez took on the bulk of it by refining anything that needed that extra focus before presenting the full lineup to Lacap, who made the final call on each cocktail. This generated drinks such as the A&W, named after the cream soda and popular fast food joint; Eat. Spit. Be Happy!, inspired by the enjoyment of sunflower seeds; and Flamin’ Hot, a nod to the addicting Cheetos snack. The popular A&W cocktail—made with pandan-infused gin, Byrrh, orange sherbet, and lemon—literally tastes like a liquid creamsicle. “I like to call pandan ‘Asian Vanilla,’” Lacap says. “Jake and I have quite a bit of experience using the extract and the fresh leaves. Jake then created an orange sherbet to give us that 50/50 bar or creamsicle vibe.”
The Cheetos-inspired Flamin’ Hot cocktail is essentially a spicy, roasted corn Margarita that’s made with blanco tequila, lime, Campfire’s roasted corn espelette syrup, and a Flamin’ Hot spice blend rim. “Jake took one of our rock-solid recipes for roasting corn and making syrup and added espelette for some sweet, earthy spice,” Lacap explains. “His Flamin’ Hot spice blend starts with a powdery base of nutritional yeast, to which we added citric acid for that zippy zing you get from actually eating the Cheetos.” Campfire garnishes an entire side of the rocks glass with the spice blend so guests can get their hands a bit dirty—just like when eating Cheetos—and then lick their fingers clean. Talk about nostalgia.
While the concept is definitely one that evokes joy, curiosity, and excitement, it is no easy feat for the bar team. “I reformatted how we track all our produce inventory, set up our pars, and [write] our prep lists for making all the product,” Lacap notes. “There was no blueprint we used to release this menu. Nothing to paste into place. It was like opening a brand-new bar.” Aside from its opening menu—which included drinks made from upcycled products and sustainable methods—this menu is the establishment’s most involved thus far because of its labor-intensive prep. Even though the menu is quite a bit of work, Lacap urges bartenders to take a step outside of their comfort zone to embrace the challenge of being creative.
“A menu should reflect your attitude towards your brand and how you want to represent yourself as a bartender,” Lacap says. “If you only dig straight classics, keep the Negronis and Sazeracs on paper. But if you’re strange and inspired by what you hear, see, your travels, your friends, the food you eat, and whatever absurd technique you just read about, then flex that stuff into a glass. Life is about experimentation. It’s good to fail. I find no gratification in playing it safe.”
- 2 oz. Blanco Tequila
- 1 oz. Roasted Corn Espelette Syrup*
- .75 oz. Lime Juice
- Flamin’ Hot Spice Blend**
Preparation: Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, shake, and strain into a rocks glass coated in Flamin’ Hot Spice Blend.
*Roasted Corn Espelette Syrup
- 24 oz. (weight) Yellow Corn Kernels
- 32 oz. Sugar
- 32 oz. Water
- 1 tbsp. Espelette Powder
Preparation: Remove husks from corncobs. Roast corncobs on grill until char develops. Cut kernels from cobs. Bring kernels, water, and remaining ingredients to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Blend in blender and strain.
**Flamin’ Hot Spice Blend
- 4 tbsp. Sumac
- 2 tbsp. Paprika
- 2 tbsp. Cayenne
- 4 tbsp. Nutritional Yeast (grind in coffee grinder before mixing)
- 4 tbsp. Salt
- 2 tsp. Citric Acid
Preparation: Whisk all ingredients together.