From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com
Margaritas are rarely my drink of choice unless I happen to find myself in a bar on Cinco de Mayo. I love tequila, but I find the margarita mix used by most bartenders to be too cloyingly sweet for my taste. However, given the chance to attend this year’s Margarita March, I decided to give this classic another look.
Organized by Beerathon LLC, the team behind the DC Whiskey Walk, the Margarita March last Saturday gave ticket-paying participants the opportunity to sample margaritas in eight Borderstan restaurants — Alero, Ben’s Next Door, Nellie’s, Bar Rouge, La Villa, Judy Restaurant, G. Stoney’s and Tabaq. Armed with my ticket, I set off for an afternoon of drinking amid the crowds.
First, it is worth noting the history on this popular cocktail. Contrary to what many probably believe, the margarita isn’t a classic Mexican drink. Like so many things we Americans conceive as “Mexican,” the margarita was actually a cross-border invention.
During Prohibition, Americans crossed the southern border in search of liquor, bringing with them their suggestions for what bartenders should serve. At the time, the “Daisy” was a popular American cocktail consisting of brandy, fruit-based liqueur, and lemon juice. Daisy, is a nickname for Margaret, which is translated in Spanish as “Margarita.” Swap tequila for the brandy and viola — the Margarita was born.
A Margarita done right respects this history of using fresh citrus juice and good quality ingredients. Unfortunately, many bars resort to pre-made artificial margarita mix, which is why I have developed a distaste for the drink over time (not to mention too many bad headaches from all that bad mixing). There were examples of both ends of the spectrum at the 2013 Margarita March.
To call out two winners — Ben’s Next Door and Bar Rouge both had excellent Margaritas made with fresh ingredients and good quality tequila. Bar Rouge in particular went above and beyond with a version made with fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juice, cointreau, and real de penjamo tequila, proving that a Margarita can compete with the best.
On the other hand, the Margaritas at Judy Restaurant were being poured by an overworked bar hand from a ratty-looking plastic jug filled with a sickly, greenish color liquid. Tequila was apparently already mixed into the jugs. Hmm. Okay, so presentation isn’t everything — I tried to give the drink a fair review on taste…
But alas… it was pretty bad. Artificially sweet and hardly a hint of tequila. Perhaps the restaurant was too overwhelmed by the crowds to put their best foot forward. Indeed, the poor bartender seemed to not know how to handle the increasingly frustrated patrons waiting for the staff to send more of the ghoulish liquid up from the kitchen.
I suspect that Alero’s Margaritas were also made with an artificial pre-mix, but the festive atmosphere made me feel less critical. Who can be grouchy with lively salsa playing in the background amid piñatas and the smell of fajitas? Even the worst Margarita tastes good in these conditions, which is how most American Mexican restaurants get away with serving such poor versions without a backlash from customers. But it doesn’t have to be this way!
I have one regret from the Margarita March — I very much wanted to try Tabaq’s Margarita, but I was too impatient to wait in the very long line to get into their tiny bar. It’s on my list for next year.
Happy Cinco de Mayo – and if you find some truly excellent Margaritas in Borderstan, we want to hear about them!