Kitsch done right: Inside Downtown’s hidden, zero-waste rum bar, Whatever Lola Wants

If you’ve ever enjoyed a drink at Mezcalero or Padre, the man you have to thank is Nathan McCullough—and now you will be able to enjoy his interpretation of rum drinks thanks to a hidden rum bar, Whatever Lola Wants, hidden near the backside of Mezcalero.

That’s right, a small-but-comfy room adorned with lavish tropical wallpaper, leopard print couches, tasteful nude paintings, kitsch done right, and a helluva lot of rum is at your disposal. But let’s get to that space in a second…

The Grandma Thunder cocktail. Photo by Brian Addison.

I have long sung the praises of McCullough’s work, even venturing to his Los Angeles digs to write about the drinks he concocts in the north. And what is so wonderful about his drinks is how particular they are: balanced, never excessively sweet, always a hint of savory, McCullough has continually honed his cocktail-making talent ever since coming to L.A. via San Diego’s Bracero Cocina de Raiz, Javier Plascencia’s much-lauded, high-end Mexican joint where he apprenticed under Christian Siglin, one of San Diego’s most respected and renowned bar directors.

Perhaps even more than his talent for combining flavors is his dedication to consistently using a variety of ingredients: huitlacoche syrups, burnt tortilla-and-salt rims, and even a Manchego cheese-centric cocktail dubbed “Cheezus Take the Wheel.”

The interior of Whatever Lola Wants. Photo by Brian Addison.

And within gathering those ingredients, he noticed something very awry: The alarming amount of waste within both the restaurant and bar industries—and that is precisely what he wants to change with Whatever Lola Wants.

“I’ve worked towards a zero-waste program, trying to think of everything I can to eliminate what would normally be pointless waste,” McCullough said. “I’ve always been conscious of trying to reuse whatever I can—bits and pieces of a garnish makes its way into a cocktail in some way—but I really wanted to delve into how far I could take it. It’s been such an eye-opening and rewarding challenge.”

So he began examining the mini-restaurant empire of Jay Krymis, owner of Padre, Mezcalero DTLB and Mezcalero DTLA—each of the three places which he directs the bar programs—looking for byproducts left behind. From used coffee grinds to broken tortilla chips at the bottom of the bucket, McCullough was able to create a master list that allows him and his new right-hand man, Sam Eppel, the ability to be as sustainable as possible while also creating gorgeous drinks.

The Trafalgar Bandit cocktail. Photo by Brian Addison.

The results?

Coffee grounds- and celery-infused rums. Dehydrated banana peels used as a garnish. Charred corn husks for both aromatics and cup decor.

“Almost everything used is from byproducts, and the very few things actually brought in are used in their entirety,” McCullough said. “For example, I wanted to use peaches—so I cooked them into a syrup, took the pulp leftover to create a fruit leather garnish [in the Rambunctious cocktail], and will be using the seeds to make an avocado seed-peach pit orgeat.”

The Rambunctious cocktail at Whatever Lola Wants. Photo by Brian Addison.

Perhaps most surprising, beyond the ambitiousness of creating a zero-waste drinking space, is the fact that McCullough has brought on Eppel and allowed the man to directly contribute to the menu—and after tasting Eppel’s creations, you can understand McCullough’s trust in his work.

He offers classic, stellar combinations, like the mighty duo of mezcal and green chartreuse found in his Trafalgar Bandit cocktail—while bringing in deeply complex drinks whose dizzyingly grand list of ingredients somehow work together—in that very same cocktail sits two types of rum, bitters, pineapple, tomatillo, cucumber, red bell pepper, serrano pepper, garlic, and fresh lemon. (A flavor profile, mind you, similar to McCollough’s Oaxacan the Garden cocktail that was a staple of Mezcalero’s inaugural drink menu.)

A cocktail known as “There’s Always One Hundred Grand” at Whatever Lola Wants. Photo by Brian Addison.

Inspired by McCollough’s admirable-but-sometimes-stubborn approach to cocktails, Eppel is discovering a new way of making drinks. (Those aforementioned dehydrated banana peels? Eppel created those as the garnish for his drink known as “There’s Always One Hundred Grand”.)

“Nathan can be rough—definitely,” Eppel said. “But he makes you a better bartender.”

For now, Whatever Lola Wants has an iffy set of hours and requires some dedication getting there. While not an entirely formal speakeasy with a password required, they open when they feel like openings—typically around 7 p.m.—and the lovely hostess outside will direct you inward. To get there, step inside Padre, head up the stairs to Mezcalero; once facing Mezcalero’s bar, Whatever Lola Wants will be toward the right-back, it door adorned with a painting and title.

But more importantly, outside of attracting a steady and dedicated crowd who appreciates drinks made in an intimate space, McCollough wants the zero-waste portion of their operation to be inspirational.

“I’m really hoping the program will make other bartenders look at their waste in a different way by me explaining how we get the flavors we do out of what most people would consider trash,” McCullough said. “Even if it’s just in small ways here and there. It’s a mentality thing, training yourself to perceive anything and everything as a potential useful ingredient… I catch myself thinking, ‘I bet those chicken feet would make a really cool Bloody Mary garnish—and maybe I could infuse them first into a tequila for even more flavor!’ Someday I’ll go too far I believe.”

Whatever Lola Wants is located at 525 E. Broadway.

Brian Addison is a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.