Of all the cocktails featured in this issue, the Margarita is the one with the closest ties to San Diego. Specifically, the frozen kind; the alcoholic version of the Slurpee.
In 1947, Albert Hernandez, a bartender at La Plaza, a popular Mexican restaurant in Bird Rock, changed the cocktail world when he added crushed ice to the Margarita. “He was the first guy who came up with the idea of mixing the drink with ice in a blender,” says Hernandez’s son, John.
The innovation made strawberry and mango Margaritas possible, says John.
“You really can’t have fruity flavors over the rocks.”
19320 Lake Drive, Escondido
The elder Hernandez later took the frozen Margarita to Hernandez’ Hideaway and saw it become really cool in the 1970s. Hernandez died in 2006 at the age of 91, but his son isn’t sure whether this Margarita master realized the impact he had on the world. “My dad was a pretty humble guy,” John says.
Although Hernandez created the frozen Margarita, the origin of the classic on-the-rocks version is a subject of debate. Some say it was invented in 1938, at Rancho La Gloria between Rosarito Beach and Tijuana, while others say Hussong’s Cantina first served it in 1941.
Margarita, depending on the person telling the tale, was either a showgirl, the daughter of an ambassador, or a Dallas socialite.
Lucien Conner, the general manager of Puesto (789 W. Harbor Drive, Gaslamp), credits Tommy’s Place Bar in El Paso, Texas, as the place that perfected the recipe. “The classic Tommy’s recipe is two parts tequila, one part lime juice and one part sweetener — nothing else,” he says.
La Jolla may be ground zero for the frozen Margarita, but Old Town is the place where many tourists and locals had their first taste. Gilbert Gastelum, general manager of Casa de Bandini (1901 Calle Barcelona, Carlsbad), which was located for many years in Old Town, said frozen Margaritas were on the menu from the first day its sister restaurant Casa de Pico opened there in 1971, before moving to Grossmont Center in La Mesa a few years back. “Were it not for the frozen Margarita, I believe tequila would not have developed so fast or become such a fine and respected spirit so quickly,” he says. “But when 100 percent blue agave began to gain popularity and became available to the U.S. in substantial quantities in the early 1980s, drinking tequila no longer meant that you had to have a bite of lime when you took a sip.”
Conner credits Hernandez’s version with helping to make the Margarita world-famous, but tastes have changed since the 1970s when the frozen version was at its peak of popularity. “The colder a drink is, the more it masks the taste, and the more it needs to be sweet,” he says. “People have gravitated toward having tequila on the rocks as better spirits are available.”
But frozen Margaritas don’t have to hide substandard spirits. “Frozen drinks get a bad rap due to the dark ages of the cocktail era,” says Chris Burkett, bartender at JSix (616 J Street, Gaslamp). “I personally have no issues with frozen drinks as long as they’re done right: fresh juice, housemade ingredients, quality spirits. The moment a bartender stops caring and takes the easy way out by adding artificial ingredients is when everything goes south.”
The general consensus is that a blanco tequila is best for Margaritas, but the more aged reposados have a bite that plays well with the lime and salt. Añejo tequilas, which are aged even more, are best left by themselves.
Also growing in popularity are Margaritas made with mezcal, a spirit that, like tequila, is distilled from the agave plant. “Mezcal is more complex, so when you add the smokiness, it becomes more of a sipping cocktail,” says Gabe Garza, the head bartender at Don Chido (527 Fifth Ave, Gaslamp). “All tequilas are a form of mezcal. We call our mezcal version a ‘mezcal-rita,’ but it’s really splitting hairs at that point.”
Both mezcal and tequila have inspired some very spirited local cocktails. Tommy Shankland, the bartender at Masters Kitchen and Cocktail (208 South Coast Highway, Oceanside) swears by a concoction he invented called the Johnny Vegas that blends Grand Leyenda tequila with lime and Red Bull.
“I know the Red Bull sounds crazy, but it’s actually delicious,” he insists.
639 J Street, Downtown San Diego
The Blind Burro has the Azteka, a margarita variation that blends mezcal and ginger liqueur with chipotle agave nectar, lemon juice, soda, chipotle salt, and beef jerky.
The effect is sweet, smoky, and salty; a cocktail with gravitas.
The Margarita may be the number-one tequila cocktail in America, but in Mexico it’s the Paloma, a mix of tequila and grapefruit soda.
211 Mission Avenue, Oceanside
“I don’t know if it will ever be as popular as the Margarita but there are a lot of different variations and spins you can get on that drink,” says Lauren LaFortune of Hello Betty Fish House.
Case in point: the Blind Burro version is as simple as a vodka soda, while the Hello Betty variation includes ginger rum, Del Maguey mezcal, Aperol, lime, and Jarritos grapefruit soda for a cocktail that is smoky, sweet, yet dry.
Don Chido’s Paloma adds blood orange to Cazadores Blanco tequila and Squirt soda, making for a fruit-forward drink with hints of vanilla.
Even though frozen Margaritas now conjure up memories of cheesy Love Boat reruns and Jimmy Buffett singalongs, LaFortune doesn’t think that’s a bad thing. “People associate frozen drinks with beaches and vacation, so they have the power to transport people to that relaxed state of mind wherever you are,” she says.