Sweet and Lowdown

Self-styled "foodies" regularly fire off tedious monologues on the evils of processed foods and commercial farming. Personally, we think curbing outbreaks of scurvy is a reasonable payoff for all those crates of tasteless vegetables sitting in grocery bins. In any case, the Burning Question crew is more offended by popular drinking habits. After all, the once-revered American alcoholic has been beaten into submission by a society determined to restore "values." Gone are three-martini lunches, W.C. Fields, Dean Martin and his Rat Pack antics. Hell, Winston Churchill guided the Brits through World War II while chugging gin and chomping big cigars.

Of course, he did promote Monty to Field Marshal. Guess maybe he should've cut down just a bit.

Anyway, as professional drunks and ne'er-do-wells, we've noticed the damage wrought by this emphasis on propriety. Few people ordering cocktails at Dallas clubs seem to understand the finer points of drinking. Even the basics elude them. "I get people all the time that ask me the silliest things," says Dan Carr, bartender at Hibiscus. His favorite: "Can you make this martini strong?"

More to the point of this week's topic, locals frequently rave about the margaritas served at Mi Cocina. We've tried them. They're syrupy, characterless, overpriced and so weak that downing four or five generates nary a buzz. (Editor's note: Consider the source on this last claim.)

So why do people settle for mediocrity? Better yet, what constitutes a good margarita?

"There's really only one way to do this," said Brian McCullough, bartender at the Old Republic, when we explained our dilemma. "Let's drink some margaritas."

Traditional margarita recipes call for three ingredients: tequila, orange liqueur and fresh-squeezed lime juice. Like most old-fashioned cocktails, the goal is to balance the ingredients without completely covering any one flavor. Yet the overwhelming majority of Dallas bars blend sweet-and-sour mix--often reconstituted lemon-lime powder and sugar--with the alcohol. Sweet-and-sour saves time, provides consistency ("anyone can take a mix and shake it up," McCullough points out) and cuts down on costs. It also blankets the other tastes, turning a dose of alcoholic bliss into limeade.

It's easy to understand why simple blasts of lime-flavored sugar water attract a following. Novices and occasional drinkers rarely appreciate, say, the complexities of good anejo tequila. They'd rather drown out the bite of liquor. "Most people drink them that way because they don't like the taste of tequila," says Ken McCabe, bartender at Blue Mesa in Addison. Consider this: The most popular gins are brands that deliberately soften the pungent botanical punch. When we actually risk a Belgian beer, it's generally the familiar Stella Artois rather than the delicate and unpredictable Trappist varieties. Vodka currently dominates the spirit world, finding its way into about 75 percent of all drinks mixed in bars across the United States. It's an odorless, colorless, tasteless liquor. "Vodka is smooth, and people go for the smoothest thing around," says Ray Rubio, bartender at Javier's. "Good margaritas are too much, so they combine water with sugar to make it smoother. That opens it to a bigger market."

Not to slander creative twists, mind you. We're big fans of the belly button margarita at Ciudad, we never turn down a Primo's meltdown on a summer day and turn to the Tang-tini at Standard (shaken with real Tang) for our daily jolt of vitamin C. Only the sappy and wildly overrated sweet-and-sour shams bother us.

Now then, what makes a margarita good?

Back to those three ingredients: fresh-squeezed lime juice, Cointreau or Grand Marnier, depending on personal preference (the latter is a bit on the sweet side) and a decent tequila. Several bartenders suggested Don Julio, but it really depends. Tres Generations smoothes out the tart edges. Chinaco adds a peppery kick. Sauza Hornitos is balanced and unthreatening. "That's the thing," says Frankie Jimenez of Monica's in Deep Ellum. "What is the taste you look for?"

Keep in mind we started with three rounds at Old Republic, then sauntered to Primo's and Javier's and Ciudad and Monica's...and somehow we ended up in Carrollton with several, um, "veteran" waitresses from Denny's, slumped over the bar at Agave Azul.

Just so we're clear on the dangers of a really great cocktail.

Guess we've learned several things putting this story together. There'll be something you thoroughly regret after a dozen or so margaritas; you just don't quite know what until the phone starts ringing about mid-morning. That's one. Second, wean yourself away from the pedestrian stuff or ask a bartender for help. Agave Azul offers a margarita of the month, mixed with a different brand each time, reports bartender Edgar Mora, "to expose people to the difference."

Finally, remember that each time you blaspheme a beautiful tradition it hurts someone very special. "Sweet-and-sour?" asks Ciudad's Leann Berry with a grimace. "I could just cry because you ruined some good tequila."

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries

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