Lovely 'rita, Tequila made

A Texan native's search for Boston's perfect margarita.

25th April 2002





You don’t have to be lying on a Mexican beach to enjoy a well-made margarita — although such conditions certainly help. After all, there are plenty of places in Boston that tout the grandeur of their frozen and on-the-rocks concoctions. As a Texan who lived in Boston for many years, my quest for the perfect margarita began as soon as I was old enough to get into the bars on Boylston Street. And if ever there was a day for margaritas, it’s Cinco de Mayo; the Mexican holiday is like a drinking carte blanche for tequila lovers worldwide. While it often gets mistaken for Mexico’s Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo actually celebrates Mexico’s defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. So every year on May 5, tequila lovers everywhere pay homage to Mexico by drinking up. If Mexico had lost that battle, we might well be drinking French Champagne.

If your Cinco de Mayo celebration involves finding the best margarita in Boston, keep in mind that not all margaritas are created equal. Everything from the size of the glass to the way the ice is crushedinfluences the potency of these lime-infused cocktails. Yet one rule is unbreakable: a good margarita must be made with quality tequila.

Drinking top-notch tequila is what the Jose Cuervo family has encouraged for more than two centuries. The Mexican tequila maker has bottled the liquid since 1795 by slow-roasting blue agave plants in adobe ovens until the product is distilled into the world’s best-selling tequila brand. " Not all rums are the same, not all vodkas are the same, " says Anamaria Cesena, brand-development manager for Jose Cuervo. " It’s the same with tequilas — there are different types. "

For example, pouring Cuervo’s 1800 Añejo into a margarita would be like mixing a pricey 24-year-old Scotch with soda. The 1800, like the aged bottles of Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia, is meant to be sipped, not mixed with other ingredients. On the other hand, Jose Cuervo Especial, commonly known as Cuervo Gold, can liven up a margarita so much that sipping one in a bar in Boston can almost transport you to spring break in Cancún, if you’ve got an active imagination.

Along with ordering a margarita made with choice tequila, it’s important to drink margaritas made with fresh lime juice. " And I recommend it served on the rocks topped with an orange liqueur, " Cesena adds. " I recommend Grand Marnier. " She also urges margarita drinkers to pay attention to the glass. " The best way to serve a margarita on the rocks is in a tumbler, " she says. " If you get it in those wide-mouthed glasses, they’re so hard to drink. " Cesena notes that frozen and flavored margaritas are fine if they’re served in wide-mouthed glasses; for fruit-based margaritas, she recommends ordering sugar instead of salt on the rim.

A recent shortage of the blue agave plant has caused an increase in the price of tequila, which has led some restaurants to use a tequila blend, rather than pure tequila, in their house margaritas. Most bartenders will tell you if this is the case, but the best way to avoid these second-rate blends is to order a margarita made with a brand-name tequila. Just realize you may have to pay a little more for it. While Cuervo leads the tequila market worldwide, Sauza is also a popular brand in Boston. Regardless of your brand of choice, ask for your tequila by name when you order a margarita, and enjoy that rare but perfect kick that comes from a well-made mix of tequila, salt, and lime.

Just remember that a good margarita is about more than just the drink itself. Where you’re drinking it, who’s serving it, and what you’re eating with it count nearly as much as the tequila with which it’s made. After all, who can imagine living la vida loca while sitting in a wood-paneled pub? Here are some of my favorite places to enjoy a margarita. This Cinco de Mayo, try one of these, or pick your own.


Best overall margarita experience:Border Café (32 Church Street (Harvard Square), Cambridge, 617-864-6100). The Border is as authentic a margarita-drinking experience as you’ll get in this area. The chips and salsa are excellent, the inexpensive menu is varied, and the casual atmosphere is so noisy and fun that it almost doesn’t matter that the frozen regular margaritas can be a bit watered down. Surprisingly, the Border hasn’t invested in a margarita machine, which means the blender-made frozen margaritas are often a little icy. Solution: order a grand-gold ’rita on the rocks ($5.50). It's made with Cuervo Gold and is strong enough to make you pause before ordering a second. Frozen strawberry margaritas ($4.50), not too sweet, are also a good bet.

Best frozen margarita: Cottonwood Café (222 Berkeley Street, Boston, 617-247-2225). Cottonwood’s frozen margaritas are refreshing, smooth, and dispensed from a machine. They’re made with a fresh-lime base and fresh-fruit purée so tangy and potent that it’s alarmingly easy to forget there’s tequila in there. Cottonwood manager Jim Sherred says the restaurant does use a tequila blend in its house margaritas ($5.95), but that more than 60 percent of its margarita-drinking customers order specialty ’ritas instead of the house. Prickly pear and mango were two recent frozen-margarita blends ($6.25), and the Cottonwood Classic ($7.50), made with Sauza Conmemorativo and Citronage, is powerful on the rocks with salt. Margaritas by the pitcher are also available ($23 and up). Cottonwood’s sophisticated atmosphere, usually dominated by the after-work crowd, lends itself more to tequila-inspired fantasies like hopping on a plane to Mexico than to hopping up to dance on the bar.

Best fruit margarita: Zuma’s (7 Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Boston, 617-367-9114). Tucked downstairs at Faneuil Hall, Zuma’s is a hidden haven for true margarita lovers who don’t mind rubbing elbows with tourists. Owner Cody Baker and his staff make their own sour mix every day using fresh-squeezed lime juice, so there’s nothing fake or processed about the margaritas here. Zuma’s makes fresh, individually blended frozen fruit margaritas in flavors including mango, watermelon, and tangerine, as well as the more standard lime and strawberry. House margaritas are made with Juarez ($4.50); grand-gold margaritas are made with Sauza Especial (also known as Sauza Gold) and Grand Marnier ($5.95); and Cadillac margaritas are made with Sauza Conmemorativo ($7.95). Plastic dolphins perch on the edge of Zuma’s margs, and the food is also good — particularly the Mexican rice.

Best basic margarita: Fajitas & ’Ritas (25 West Street, Boston, 617-426-1222; 48 Boylston Street, Route 9, Brookline, 617-566-1222). There are no frills at Fajitas & ’Ritas, right down to the kind of glasses in which the drinks are served: my grand gold ($5.47) was made with Sauza Hornitos, served in a short tumbler with salt and lime. Grand margaritas are made with Grand Marnier, of which several brands are stocked. The sour mix F&R uses is more sweet than tart, but the margaritas go down easy and are a good bargain. Juarez tequila is used in the house margs ($4.05); you’ll find Sauza in the more upscale margs ($4.29–$5.47), unless you specify otherwise. Cuervo floaters are available with any margarita, and F&R also sells frozen pitchers ($10.71–$11.42). Food and margaritas are ordered by filling out a checklist and handing it to a bartender or waiter, giving the whole Fajitas & ’Ritas experience the laid-back informality of an authentic joint in Mexico.

Most creative margarita: Cactus Club (939 Boylston Street, Boston, 617-236-0200). For years the Cactus has been making unusual tequila-laden drinks such as the Cactus Bowl ($12.95); one of its latest concoctions is the Snow Cone, a drink of layered frozen strawberry, tangerine, and regular margarita ($6.25). The frozen ’ritas here come from a machine and are tangy without making your lips pucker. If there’s a tequila drink you’ve enjoyed at Cactus that’s no longer on the menu, just ask for it. Manager Jim Lifton says sipping tequilas have also been quite popular for the past two years. Cactus uses Juarez for its house margaritas ($5.50) and Cuervo Gold for its gold ($5.75) and Cadillac margs ($6.25).

Best place to be seen drinking a Masarita: Masa (439 Tremont Street (South End), Boston, 617-338-8884). The magic ingredient in Masa’s signature tequila drink is apple juice. Combined with hand-squeezed lime and orange juices, the apple juice in the Masarita ($8), made with Sauza Gold and Cointreau, takes the bite out of the tequila and lime, making for a relatively calm tequila-drinking experience. While the chic and elegant Masa isn’t really the place to go for the most authentic margarita, the Masarita does the trick for a quick tequila fix.

Most unexpected place to find a good margarita:Washington Square Tavern (714 Washington Street, Brookline, 617-232-8989). Owner Gerry Finnegan calls the only margarita on his menu the " Big-Ass Margarita, " and that it is. Made with Sauza Hornitos, Cointreau, and fresh-squeezed lime juice, this marg comes in a tumbler the size of a water glass, and water is what you’ll need to make it home after one or two of these. The Tavern is better known for its beer-and-wine list, but don’t be fooled: this Irishman and his bartenders make a margarita mean enough to make a Texan forget about being homesick.

Copyright © 2002 Phoenix Media/Communications Group