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September 23, 2008

The Tipsy Texan on Margaritas

Margarita
The Mexican Martini has a blurry history.
AP Photo

Guest blogging for the Daily Traveler today is David Alan, a.k.a. the Tipsy Texan, a freelance writer and co-publisher of Tipsytexan.com with partner Joe Eifler.

In a city where craft cocktails are still on the cultural fringe, the go-to drink in Austin is the margarita. It wasn't invented here and its main ingredient isn't produced here, but it undeniably reigns supreme here.

The inevitable question arises: "Where is the best margarita in Austin?" As the drink is an essential part of the Tex-Mex cuisine that dominates the city, this topic is as controversial as "Where is the best barbecue?" (The joke goes that we have two major food groups: queso and barbecue.) Below, I give you not a definitive answer, but some guidelines.

First, I must address a fascination of mine, the Mexican martini. Like the margarita, the provenance of the Mexican martini remains obscured by cocktail history's inebriated memory. At its simplest (and in my opinion, best), the drink is essentially a margarita presented in a cocktail shaker and then poured tableside into a cocktail glass rimmed with salt and garnished with a jalapeño-stuffed olive. At its worst it is shaken with Rose's lime juice or other adulterants.

While the Mexican martini is a ubiquitous Austin menu item, there seem to be two main contenders for its ownership. The first is the Cedar Door, the self-proclaimed "Home of the Original Mexican Martini." The bar occupies a little red house that has been moved around downtown like a chess piece--four times in its 26 years--as development has swallowed up the land beneath its feet. Many Austinites were thrilled when the Cedar Door released a bottled version of its Mexican martini mix, but I don't recommend it. Citric acid and oils are no substitute for fresh lime juice. Furthermore, a research project led me to discover that they use said mix behind the bar, as well; the once-great Mexican martini has been reduced to a tourist trinket version of its former self.

Trudy's, a local Tex-Mex chain, touts itself as the "Home of the World Famous Trudy's Mexican Martini." On that same research trip I found conflicting opinions of what constitutes its Mexican martini: tequila, of course, and triple sec, but other possible ingredients include everything from sweet and sour, orange juice, and olive juice to (yikes!) Sprite.

Claudia Alarcón, a longtime fixture on the Austin food scene and a native of Mexico, claims that the Cedar Door originally called the Mexican martini the Mexican margarita and served it strained into a small cocktail glass. She also claims that it originally consisted only of tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice. Something somewhere went very, very wrong.

Iron Cactus
The tequila wall at Iron Cactus.

Now back to margarita business: At the Iron Cactus, a multi-story temple of tequila, where servers pour over 40 bottlings and the margaritas are properly tart. Consequently, the drinks are not cheap. As I always say, if you want the best, go where the bottles are, not where the bargains are. Whether you are at a hot spot (Ranch 616) or an old landmark (Matt's El Rancho), go for 100 percent agave tequilas with Cointreau and fresh lime. Don't be afraid to tell your server that this is how you want it; many restaurants offer a range of variations on the margarita, and will likewise serve it as a Mexican martini on request.

Someday I hope that the Austin margarita debate will achieve the status of the Pat's versus Geno's debate over Philadelphia's cheesesteaks. In the meantime, great margaritas abound, and we have no shortage of hot and sunny days on which to enjoy them.

Classic Margarita
1 1/2 oz. 100 percent agave silver tequila
3/4 oz. Paula's Texas Orange (or Cointreau)
3/4 oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice
(If a sweeter drink is desired, start with a scant 1/2 oz. simple syrup or agave nectar and adjust to taste. I prefer a more tart beverage.)

I am of the opinion that the tequila:orange:lime ratio in a margarita is something like the ratio of gin to vermouth in a martini in that the drinker really has to experiment to find a suitable balance. Paula from Paula's Texas Orange calls for equal parts, not surprisingly, of tequila and orange liqueur; a lot of recipes call for 1.5 ounces to one ounce, respectively. Play around with ratios, just don't mess with the holy trinity of these two ingredients plus fresh lime juice.

Further reading:
* The Tipsy Texan
* Video: how not to make a margarita
* Keep Austin Wonderful
* More from Austin
* Catch of the Day

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