A Loose, Tequila-Soaked Quest
Where can you find this town’s greatest margarita? The question has intrigued me for a few years. As I ate Southwestern, Mexican, and Arizonan food up and down the Valley for my gig as food editor and then food critic, I also drank. And many times, thanks to a healthy budget provided by Uncle New Times, when I ate alone, with friends, or with family, I drank margaritas.
After enjoying versions of the Mexico-born, Jalisco-spirited, stupendously refreshing, easy-to-make, easy-to-botch classic cocktail from South Phoenix to Cave Creek to Peoria to Gilbert, I finally know where I can find my favorites. So, which are best?
Before plunging down this tequila-soaked rabbit hole, we must sketch a roadmap.
The Margarita’s Fluid Possibilities
When I take my first sip of a margarita, I want to get electrocuted. I want to be utterly clobbered by the supreme freshness of the drink, which should blow over the brain like a polar wind, the lime impossibly fresh, the agave of the spirit dancing, that tequila starting to do what tequila does.
Immediately, then, several things can happen — all of them beautiful.
At once, the desert heat becomes irrelevant. Your fatigue from the world’s slow crush of infinite responsibilities dissipates. For as long as your cold glass sloshes with ice and cocktail, you may feel bursts of nostalgia, surges of joy, and even flickers of complete indifference to mortality.
Beyond tapping into certain states of mind, good margaritas tend to have certain focuses. Many highlight a 100 percent blue agave blanco tequila while softening its edges with the balancing power of fresh lime juice. Sugar can provide some depth and balance, too. So can orange liqueur, though too much can obfuscate the simple drink.
Interestingly, the margarita might not be especially old. Cocktail historians trace it to between the 1920s and 1950s.
“The margarita has almost as many histories as rabbits have bunnies,” cocktail writer Gary Regan notes. He pinpoints five possible origins.
Even the drink’s ingredients are fuzzy. This might be due to the sheer rate of expansion the margarita has enjoyed, especially in the U.S., where by the 1950s it was well on its way to becoming one of the most popular cocktails.
So, what exactly is a margarita?
Language can help set an outline. The Spanish word “margarita” means “daisy.” Daisy refers to a group of cocktails made using liquor, a sour agent, and a liqueur (meaning a distilled spirit tricked out with added flavorings, like Cointreau in the case of the margarita).
The margarita’s name hints at its bedrock ingredients: tequila, lime juice, and orange liqueur. More often than not, the margaritas shaken today have added sweetness from simple or agave syrup. These are the core Legos. If you use a high-end tequila and liqueur, you have another classic: the Cadillac Margarita. In cocktail circles, there’s a third canonical margarita: a tequila, lime, and agave syrup combo, called a Tommy’s Margarita.
But where do we draw the margarita’s bounds? Can a margarita include cactus fruit? Hibiscus? Vanilla? Vodka? Sure. So long as the frosty result conjures the tequila-sour-liqueur essence and the right loose state of mind, why not?
Exploring a Margarita Wonderland
In my freeform drinking through our margarita landscape, many versions and details have stuck in my memory. I’m thinking of the icy beauty of the frozen margaritas at Cocina Madrigal with soccer playing on the TV. I’m thinking of black salt paving the glass of a saline Cadillac served at Pulque, shaken two-at-a-time by my waiter. Or the sweet, pricy Cabernet-floated riff brought out by the “tequila goddess” at La Hacienda. Or the allure of a perfectly average classic mixed at the Peoria marisqueria Los Arbolitos De Cajeme.
Across the Valley, just about everybody uses blanco tequila. Some places can work magic with the aged stuff, too. In the cloudy mist and booming tunes of Modern Margarita in Desert Ridge, the bartenders concoct an impressive “rustic margarita” with reposado tequila that can be ordered in a 32-ounce fishbowl.
Another Valley truism: Just about everybody who uses OJ turns their drink into Tropicana. One exception: the version at both Gallo Blanco and Otro Cafe, where judicious use of orange juice re-tunes the flavors slightly and deftly while making it more crushable.
After searching and drinking and evolving my own tastes and drinking some more, I’ve settled on several favorites. If we’re talking a timeless, classic-leaning margarita and I have to choose, there are two forking paths: those with agave syrup (introducing rich, caramel notes), and those with simple syrup (which holds up a mirror to the tequila and lime).
For a classic margarita with agave syrup, I like one from CRUjiente Tacos. For a simple syrup margarita, I like one from Barrio Cafe.
Classic Favorite #1
On a humid night in mid-summer, I posted up at the CRUjiente Tacos bar during happy hour with another food critic. The inventive taqueria just past the edge of Arcadia has earned praise for its margaritas from every major local publication.
We ordered three.
The first was the Grand Cru, CRUjiente’s version of a Cadillac, their higher-end marg. Rimmed with a thin line of salt, this margarita was crisp and refreshing, tequila-forward without any kind of bite, very nice all said, though its orange liqueur plus muddled orange led to a smidge too much of the fruit.
A margarita made with mezcal rather than tequila was enjoyable but mostly smoke.
The third margarita, CRUjiente’s house standard (AKA Premier Cru), was perfect. It combines blanco tequila, agave syrup, lime, and a gentle undertow of muddled orange. Nothing obstructed the goodness of the quality tequila. Nothing wrestled away the attention. All elements joined to spotlight the spirit, to let it sing.
Pondered together, this trio shows how the ingredients that make up a margarita balance on a knife’s edge. Too much lime? Sour bazooka. Too much spirit? No glorious, refreshing zap. Too sweet? Nobody wants to drink dessert.
“The margarita is one of the easiest cocktails to make, yet probably one of the easiest to goof up,” says Jason Morris, margarita master at CRUjiente.
Morris is one of the Valley’s deep margarita thinkers, a craftsman who employs thoughtful techniques. For instance, he uses agave syrup cut with simple syrup, which preserves agave syrup’s “more complex, more roasted notes” while achieving less viscosity for integrating the sweetener. He also likes to layer citruses for complexity, a move that has become popular in mixology circles — hence, the muddled orange (which also keys into the classic recipe’s orange liqueur). This is the kind of thinking that lurks invisibly behind most great margaritas.
I ask Morris his thoughts on tequila quality. Does it matter?
“You don’t want to mask your tequila,” he says. “The higher quality of tequila you go, the better the margarita.”
Enrique Ramos, owner of Creo Spirits, who imports about 20 kinds of agave liquors for more than 150 bars and eateries in the Valley, agrees.
“I’ve tasted every margarita from here to everywhere,” Ramos says. “If you’re going to drink a good marg, use a brand that has some quality.”
Ramos also suggests tasting widely as you drink around town. “There’s so many different combinations with people putting in bitters, fruit, and making advanced cocktails,” he says.
Classic Favorite #2
The bar at Barrio Cafe might be my favorite place to drink a margarita in town. It’s just a few seats, low-key, intimate. You get to talk to the bartender, you get to feel the gravity of the place, and the shelves are decked with agave spirits galore. Several margaritas await.
The Lowrider is king. It’s simple and bereft of gimmicks and Instagram nonsense — just Don Julio Blanco, Cointreau (orange liqueur), simple syrup, lime juice.
Tasting the cocktail, the liquid window into the Don Julio is direct, the Cointreau lending just a touch of orange (any more would be too much). The drink is consistent from day to day, month to month. (Some bartenders at Barrio Cafe have been there for years.) All said, this marg is crisp and balanced and invigorating, a platonic version of the classic, sigh-inducing tequila daisy.
For many margarita drinkers, though, the classics are but the starting point. Sadly, in our Valley-wide galaxy of margarita riffs, most are lackluster. Sugary. Overdone. Extended beyond what a margarita is. But flawless progressive takes are possible, and they can rock.
My favorite? I have two, each from a newer restaurant.
New-Age Favorite #1: A Peppery Curveball
The Hatch chili margarita at Valentine is probably the most hallucinatory margarita in town. This cloudy yellow potion is a circus of citrus and peppers in a glass boot. Barman and co-owner Blaise Faber says it’s his best-selling cocktail.
The fiendishly complex Valentine version starts with zero tequila. Instead, it uses a split base of mezcal and vodka infused with Hatch chile. This margarita loops in three citrus juices: lemon, lime, and yuzu. These are mixed with bell pepper juice (yup) and two kinds of compound sugar (one using piloncillo and roasted Hatch chiles, the other using citrus peels) into lemonade. The lemonade joins the base spirits. A Frankensteined margarita gains life.
Lifting the ersatz boot to your lips, you taste that the cocktail doesn’t center agave spirits, as the best margaritas tend to. Rather, the brightness and complexity of the layered citrus and the roasty vegetal quality of the peppers meld in surprising fashion, sealed by spice and smoke. The rim is batshit. Its powder is composed of salt, sugar, citric acid, garlic powder, and dehydrated chiles — a savory, delicious bridge to this pleasantly weird cocktail.
“We love agave spirits in general,” Faber says. “With everything, we try to kind of push the boundaries and make everyone uncomfortable.”
New-Age Favorite #2: A Sonoran Evolution
Liquid gems flow from the frosty shaker of Adrian Galindo, mixologist at Bacanora on Grand Avenue. Bacanora celebrates the food and drink of Sonora, including the agave spirit bacanora, a subcategory of mezcal (just like tequila). Galindo provides a primer on the locally available yet largely overlooked spirit of Sonora:
“It’s a little more grassy, a little sweeter than a traditional mezcal, not quite as smoke driven.”
With bacanora’s personality in mind, Galindo’s uses a split base of bacanora and blanco tequila to make his “bacanorita.”
“Particularly with the bacanorita, I wanted to make it as accessible as possible,” he says. “All it is is a split base of bacanora and tequila, a good triple sec… then fresh lime juice and agave nectar to sweeten.”
Galindo considers these components deeply. For instance, he uses agave nectar to “bring forth agave flavors as opposed to just the sugars of the simple syrup.” The product is a “bacanorita” that considers and respects its parts, ratioing them just right.
This split base functions as intended, channeling a classic margarita while also nodding to a few of bacanora’s more rugged, grassier notes. You can almost taste something of the desert. There’s also a thin puff of smoke. The kicker, exclamation, and probably even the drink’s heartbeat is its rim, lined with citrus rind, sugar, and chiltepin dust.
From the moment the cold glass is plunked lovingly on your table, that rim creates a tapestry of sweetness, spice, perfumy fragrance, and depth of flavor that catapults each sip of crisp bacanorita into a league of its own.
These are some of my favorites. Ask me again in a few months, and they may change. And that’s because a great margarita is about more than flavor, more than balance, more than tequila, more than even the blessed feeling one can spawn.
A standout margarita is also about external factors: the weather, the heat, the dryness, your thirst, the day of the week, your work schedule, your mood, your mind, your dreams and their closeness or distance. It’s also about who you’re with and what you’re doing. Good people throwing back several? This is an A+ ingredient. Friends looking to inhale mariscos and down well margaritas for $5 apiece? Now we’re adding something Cointreau can’t.
In this way, a bad margarita can be stellar. When the chimichanga and music and conversation hits right, that well margarita made from suboptimal mixto tequila can dazzle.
When the elements align for a thoughtful, well-crafted margarita, nirvana swoops in close. This zen state can descend at places I’ve covered and places I haven’t. We live in a margarita wonderland, meaning you shouldn’t stress too much about finding the best one. If you kick open the door to your mind and keep drinking and exploring, they’ll come to you.