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Griffin to Go: San Antonio Is the Real Margaritaville

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Make your margarita the way you like.

If San Antonio had an official cocktail, the margarita would be it, no contest. It flows as freely as iced tea. Just stroll along the River Walk, and you’ll see various shapes of glasses rimmed with salt and filled with lime-, magenta- and mango-colored potions as potent as you want.

The drink’s history is as hazy as the morning after a margarita binge. Some prefer to believe the story that a bartender in Ensenada, Mexico, named it after the first customer who drank it, Margarita Henkel. Others like the story that it was created by Dallas socialite Margarita Sames, who spent her last years in San Antonio. Still more discount both. Yet all raise their glass to the creation, if the creator remains a mystery.

Over the years, the original recipe has evolved. Most cocktail books and even a few cookbooks then and now list only three ingredients in the drink: tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice. The proportions, however, vary from mixer to mixer. For one recipe in “The El Paso Chile Margarita Cookbook,” author W.P. Kerr offers an easy formula to remember: Use a 1:1:1 ratio of tequila to orange liqueur to lime juice. If you can’t remember that, you probably shouldn’t be drinking, he wisely adds.

Use watermelon, prickly pear, even jalapeño to make your margarita.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the cantina. The introduction of the frozen margarita made a sweetener of some sort an essential part of the drink (frozen treats need sugar to help with the concentrated flavors; think of the role sweeteners play in ice cream). And after the rise in popularity of sweet cocktails, such as cosmopolitans and apple-tinis, the margarita became loaded with the likes of Rose’s Lime Juice, simple syrup, sweet-and-sour mix or agave nectar. The refreshing acidity of lime juice, the sweetness of Cointreau or Grand Marnier, and the tang of tequila got candy-coated. And not too many seem to mind.

You can still find a few pristine versions of the margarita out there. Or you may be able to strong-arm a bartender into making the drink the way you want. A couple of examples include Steve’s Margarita, a lime-laden libation at La Fonda on Main, and La Bonita, which is available at both locations of Aldaco’s, where it is billed as being “for aficionados only.” It’s made simply with freshly squeezed lime juice, Don Julio Blanco and Cointreau – and beautiful it is, too.

Aldaco’s also features the avocado margarita, which is part of an age-old practice of incorporating fruits beyond lime and perhaps a kiss of orange into the drink. Versions made with mangoes, watermelon, strawberries, olives and even jalapeños are certainly popular, but perhaps the most exotic, especially for tourists, is the bright magenta of the prickly pear margarita, an excellent example of which can be sipped at Boudro’s on the River Walk.

Upscale margaritas using premium tequilas fill out many a drink menu. At Rosario’s, you’ll find more than three dozen tequilas, which are used to make such concoctions as the Mexican Handshake, a lively balance of sweet to tart, but with an emphasis on freshness. Two Step Restaurant and Cantina is another pleasant stop where you can sip your way through a varied margarita menu.

A more recent trend is the skinny rita, which uses agave nectar, instead of sugar. That means it has fewer calories but is also much sweeter. So, it has become the adult version of Diet Coke for many, especially women. Meanwhile, the Quarry Hofbräu has helped usher in a whole new craze that has caught on like wildfire. The Dos-a-Rita features a schooner of frozen margarita with a bottle of Dos Equis upended in the bowl-shaped glass. The two slowly merge as you drink more and more. .

We keep reinventing the margarita to suit the times, and the drink doesn’t seem to mind it one bit.

Alamo City Classic Margarita

Two Step offers a variety of margaritas.

I’m not a big fan of sweet margaritas, though I have enjoyed more than a few south of the border that were sweetened by Sprite. The following recipe from takes margarita tradition and sweetens it slightly, but keeps the drink solidly on the refreshing side.

You can use your own orange liqueur, but, as I learned from a true San Antonio native, my friend Gail Harwood, the preferred version is Mexican Controy, which you can only get in Mexico and bring back through Customs one green bottle at a time. Controy tastes like fresh oranges, whereas Cointreau and Grand Marnier taste more like marmalade or burnt orange peel. Triple sec is more about the alcohol than the orange flavor, and it can make as fine a margarita as the rest, if used properly.

Another variation would be to include blood oranges, when they are in season, instead of tangelo juice. The color is dramatic, and the juice adds a flavor different from the sweet tangelo.

Just before you are ready to pour your margarita, run a lime wedge around the edge and dip it in what you like. Tradition dictates salt, but you could use sugar, if you like it sweet. Or you could mix either with Lucas powder, a mouth-puckering Mexican treat with lime and chile in it.

The secret is to make it taste however you want it to taste.

2 parts silver or blanco tequila
1 part orange liqueur
1 part freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tangelo cut into wedges, with a wedge per cocktail, plus slices slices for garnish
Lime slices for garnish

In an ice-filled shaker, add tequila, orange liqueur, lime juice and juice of 1 wedge of tangelo per serving. Shake until icy cold. Pour into a chilled margarita glass or martini glass that has been rimmed with lime and salt. Garnish with a slice of tangelo and a slice of lime.

From John Griffin

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