Searching for the perfect margarita
Is there such a thing as the perfect 10?
When I was young and too dumb to know better I let perfection slip through my hands. Thus the quest for the perfect margarita began with the discovery of the perfect margarita.
It was the summer vacation between my junior and senior years in college, and I was at the age when my alcohol priorities placed quantity over quality. We were working as lifeguards for the City of Los Angeles and finally old enough to go to bars, which meant we had money to do just that. One Friday night we ended up at a small Mexican restaurant in Playa Del Rey named the Sandpiper. We ordered a round of margaritas, and we all thought those drinks were pretty darn good.
I remember ordering the second round and telling my friends how glad I was the drinks weren’t very strong because I didn’t have a lot of experience with cocktails. Another thing I remember is thinking that the bartender was the best-looking man I had ever seen, odd perhaps, since I’m not to my knowledge gay. The last thing I remember was a conversation with a Los Angeles police officer about how walking home would probably be a very good idea.
We had found our home away from home and ended up at the Sandpiper pretty much every Friday night for the rest of that summer. We went back to school when the pools closed for the season and it was Brown Derby time until we were once again gainfully employed. When we got our first paychecks the next summer, we joyfully returned to the Sandpiper but discovered that the place had not survived the winter and was now a bead shop.
No problemo, we thought and headed for the nearest Mexican restaurant to order up our first margaritas of the season.
The drinks we ordered tasted like tequila and lime. This was not the margarita we knew. We went to another Mexican restaurant. This wasn’t right either. We ordered their top-shelf margarita. Even worse. Panic set in. We went to every Mexican restaurant in the greater Santa Monica area in search of the Sandpiper margarita, but it was gone. Thus began my lifelong search to find the perfect margarita.
Along the way I came to realize that the perfect margarita was not a function of the quality of the tequila or the freshness of the lime. It was a product of the symbiosis between the blended ingredients, a cocktail confluence resulting in a perfectly balanced magic elixir.
The Sandpiper recipe had been so smooth that you tasted no tequila, no lime, no salt. You didn’t taste it as much as experience it. The moment you held the golden combination of liquid and salt in your mouth was cocktail nirvana. I had found it once without knowing it. I needed to find it again.
My quest had one simple rule: Whenever someone told me about the best margarita they had ever had, I was obligated to track it down and rate it on a scale of one to ten.
The subsequent search took me literally around the world. Once in the town of Corning, New York (five), I met a man in a brew pub who ecstatically insisted the perfect margarita was in a restaurant called the Boatyard in a small, backwater town in New Jersey.
It just so happened I was scheduled to fly out of Newark (four) later that week, so with a small, two-hour detour, there I was. The place was a dive near Philadelphia (two) but it was Cinco de Mayo so I took that as a sign that my quest would end in New Jersey (three). It did not.
The bartender seemed surprised and a little nervous when I told him how far I had come and why. He had reason to be. When I called the guy in Corning to tell him his place rated a three, he confessed he didn’t really know what margaritas were. He got them confused with mai tais.
I was on a ski trip to Canada with a group of friends when we found an Italian restaurant with a “special” margarita.
“You’re not going to have that,” my wife said.
“I have to,” I replied. “It’s my quest.”
“But seriously,” said one of my friends. “You’re going to be sorry.”
“You never know,” I said. “This could be it.”
“Two words,” my wife dead-panned. “New Jersey.”
“Yeah,” I said, “there is that.”
I ordered it. It was the new number one.
“What exactly is this made with?” I asked the waiter.
“It’s called ‘the lieutenant,’” he replied.
“The lieutenant,” he repeated. “Come in the back and I’ll show you. It’s very popular with the little old ladies in town.”
We went behind the bar where he showed me a plastic bag full of powder. It had a picture of a dashing young man in military garb and the words, “The Lieutenant” on the top.
“You cut the top off and add rum up to the line. Then you mix it up and put it in the freezer for three minutes.” he explained.
“I think you’re supposed to use tequila,” I said, squinting to see the fine print on the bag.
“I know,” he replied. “But the little old ladies like rum.”
“Look at the bright side,” smiled my wife. “You got a new number one.”
“It is good isn’t it?” beamed the waiter.
And so the quest continued. From Chicago (a surprising eight) to New York City (four), from Shanghai (five) to Fiji (seven) and still no perfect margarita.
Then one day I was looking for property on the Pacific Coast at Fort Bragg, with a less-than-competent real estate agent who mentioned in passing that there was a small Mexican restaurant in town where the food was so-so but the margaritas were spectacular. Considering his real estate skills I took that with a grain of salt, but the next time my wife and I were in Fort Bragg, I told her there was a place we needed to go.
And there it was. A margarita ten. The quest was finally over. Because of that margarita, I built a house in Fort Bragg. Because of that margarita I brought two of my friends to Fort Bragg and they bought houses too. We began to use that margarita as currency. No one was paid for services in money, it was all in margaritas. Now, bets are made only in margaritas. When property values fell we didn’t care, as long as we could be close to the margarita. Life was good.
But then, of course, we spent hours and weeks and months trying to divine the magic formula, the precise contents of the elixir chemically conjoined with the bottom-shelf tequila used to make the perfect margarita. We think we have come close, but we’re not there yet.
And, to be honest, the quest may never be over. I have to acknowledge the possibility that there could exist an even better margarita and so, whenever someone claims to have found the best margarita in the world, I’m still obligated to investigate. A rumor reached me that there might be a contender in the town of Sonoma. It was like red meat to a saltwater croc. A scouting party was formed, plans were laid, and on a blustery spring evening a quartet of seasoned tasters set forth on a foray around and near the Plaza.
A typical taqueria with margarita aspirations rated six. A well-known near-Plaza eatery could only muster a four (too sour). Another Plaza bar with a reputation for creative cocktails pulled an eight. A nearby competitor managed a six, with a shot of Don Julio.
Which brought us to Maya, the self-proclaimed tequila temple and the most likely contender.
We ordered the house margarita, followed by their top shelf. A palpable drumroll ran through our heads. Four of us tasted, four of us agreed.
The house Maya was the best of the night. We gave it an eight and a half. The top shelf was second, confirming the belief that good tequila is wasted in margaritas.
Maya rules. But neither was best ever. And so I still search.
Just last week I was in Kansas City at a Royals game when the subject came up with the guy next to me.
“Yeah, I know where the best margarita in the world is,” he shouted over the crowd noise. “I had it in El Paso. Best damn thing I ever tasted. Nectar of the gods, it was.”
“No kidding,” I yelled back. “You don’t happen to remember the name of the place do you?”
“No, I don’t,” he shouted. “But the bartender told me it came in a bag. All you do is add tequila.”
At least in El Paso (one and a half) they got the tequila part right.
What did we learn from the Perfect Margarita Quest? We learned that top-shelf tequila does not make for a top-shelf margarita. It’s a waste of good booze because the subtle nuances get lost in the blend. On the other hand, if you want top-shelf tequila, you’ve got to try Riazul. It’s not cheap but it doesn’t get much better at any price. The añejo was ranked first among 164 entries in a blind tasting, with 94 points. The reposado and the blanco each got 91. The añejo and the blanco are two of the best tequilas I’ve ever tasted. The reposado was close behind. Just don’t put them in a margarita. Drink them neat. Go to riazul.com.
From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMA