Six local joints, one top margarita 

Wastin' away again

There's an ad for Jose Cuervo in the Oct. 9, 1965 issue of the New Yorker, showing a smeary painting of a smoky-eyed blonde wearing a floral-print hood, with the text, "Margarita: More than a girl's name." It's got a real Monet-meets-Bond-girl vibe, but even better, there's an early recipe for the perfect Memorial Day weekend drink: "1½ oz. white Cuervo Tequila; ½ oz. Triple Sec; 1 oz. fresh lime or lemon juice. Shake with shaved ice. Serve in a salt-rimmed glass."

Though almost 50 years have passed, not much has changed: Today, the International Bartenders Association recommends using 3.5 centiliters of tequila (about 1.25 ounces), 2 centiliters of Cointreau (a brand of triple sec) and 1.5 cl of fresh lime juice.

Meanwhile, Nate Windham, expert mixologist at the Blue Star, does his this way: "The one that I make is an ounce-and-a-half of a good reposado mixing tequila — you know, something that's in the $20-to-$30 range," he says. "Three-quarters of an ounce of triple sec; an ounce-and-a-quarter of fresh lime juice; and then I do three-quarters of an ounce of simple syrup, and maybe a quarter-ounce or so of orange juice."

The bartender, a longtime leader in the scene and one of the most respected in the city, says a lot of people make the mistake of using too expensive a tequila in a concoction that, like most mixed drinks, is essentially designed to cover up the taste of the alcohol. But even if you don't want to over-think your tequila selection, you should be careful with your mixers.

"Grand Marnier and Gran Gala aren't really triple secs, they're more of an orange liqueur: they're brandy-based as opposed to a grain-neutral spirit base," says Windham. "I definitely don't like them in a margarita. I think it weighs everything down, you know?"

Additionally, the bartender says, go easy on any added sugar, and, for the love of all that's holy, skip the sweet-and-sour mix.

"Typically the ones you find in the plastic containers are just high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial flavoring and color," Windham says. "I mean, most of the [Mexican] places in town use sweet-and-sour, and that's no way to make a margarita."

Hell, high-fructose corn syrup wasn't even widely introduced until the late '70s, decades after the margarita took off.

"Anything that's been around 50 and 60 years and still gets ordered — and besides it's one of the top-selling drinks in the world — it's hard to argue with that," the bartender says. He adds with a laugh, "Even when it's made badly, it's a good drink."

For our competition, we only visited Mexican restaurants — as they're the most likely to serve a margarita — culling from previous Best Of awards, personal recommendations and local history. At each restaurant, we ordered a house version and what we identified as the most unusual offering, on the rocks with salt. Drinks were judged based on their overall taste, balance of flavors and value.

The drinks at Crystal Park Cantina (178 Crystal Park Road, Manitou Springs, crystalparkcantina.com) offer a lot to like — beautiful glassware, creative garnishes, and quality that feels crafted for enjoyment rather than profit. But they prove that one ingredient can be the undoing. And when that ingredient is lime juice, unfortunately it doesn't take much.

Both the La Cantina ($7) — a mix of Sauza Silver, Sun Orchard sweet-and-sour mix, Hiram Walker triple sec and lime juice — and the lovely pale-green-and-flecked Jalapeño Cilantro ($9) — Patrón Silver, eponymous muddled ingredients, more mix, sec and juice — were beaten to death with a pucker-generating cudgel; so tart it was almost all you tasted.

The Loop (965 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, theloopatmanitou.com) is a local marg monster, having won the Indy's Best Of competition four years in a row and taking 39 percent of all votes cast in the category last year. But its house ($7) version offered Juarez tequila, usually sold well below that $20-to-$30 range, with triple sec, sweet-and-sour and lime juice, and it tasted like sugary limeade, with almost no tequila flavor.

The Skinny Margarita ($9.50), on the other hand, containing only Tequila Partida, lime juice and agave nectar, was one of the best we tried: boozy, with flashes of lime up front, before giving way to a slight bitterness that finishes on an easy honey note. The menu, with mainly fruit options, could use more variety, but the Skinny's no pushover.

On the west side of Powers Boulevard, José Muldoon's (5710 S. Carefree Circle, josemuldoons.com) dishes everything its downtown location does, plus a little parking to boot. And you can't fault its customer service: A bartender gave us happy-hour prices on our margaritas just for the hell of it.

Unfortunately, it was the only upside. A house version (regularly $5), rimmed with chunky salt and an aging lime slice and made with Sauza Silver, proved too heavy on the sweet-and-sour, unpleasantness building with each swallow.

The Pama Margarita ($7.25), which glowed a deep reddish-purple at its bottom, went about the same, except it was a pungent pomegranate-raspberry flavor trouncing other ingredients. Props for value, though: Both drinks were a full 16 ounces.

There's little to be said for the margs sampled at Salsa Brava (9420 Briar Village Point, #100, rockymtnrg.com/salsabrava), except that the unbalanced and overbearing Perfect Patrón ($8) will do a serious number on your sobriety. In a rocks glass sporting melted ice and salt haphazardly scattered across its upper half, the dark-amber drink featured a combination of blanco tequila, orange-flavored liqueurs Cointreau and Gran Gala, with some of the pre-made house margarita mix thrown in.

And about that house stuff? It's made in five-gallon buckets with Montezuma tequila before being poured into a recirculating drink machine behind the bar. Being made to consume one ($6.50) feels every bit an act of revenge, defying Windham's optimism.

You could probably drink rotgut on the creek-side patio at Amanda's Fonda (3625 W. Colorado Ave., amandasfonda.com) and still be fairly sure your life is on the right track. Instead, choosing the Fonda Famous House Sauza ($5.50) and Patrón Añejo ($9.25) margaritas — both coming in well-salted, deep-bowled clear margarita glasses — only makes it clearer that, yes, streams and spirits belong together.

The house drink, with its lime juice and triple sec, was almost buttery, with a low, slow burn of alcoholic heat to ward off the night chill. The Patrón didn't exactly feel worth its price — there was a lesser intensity of flavors, and the balance leaned a little hard on the lime side — but a nice, fresh orange flavor represented itself well.

The winner: Estela's Mexican Restaurant (925 S. Eighth St., estelasmex.com) impresses for lots of reasons, not least because owner John Morales knows more than most about tequila and isn't shy about sharing it.

Unsolicited, he brought over a taste off his menu of more than 30 tequilas — a list that he hopes will exceed 50 soon — and it was as perfect as the two drinks we eventually ordered: the Sauza Blanco ($6) and the Corzo Silver ($8). Like everything on the menu, each is started only with agave nectar, Hiram Walker triple sec, and fresh lime juice, with the Corzo getting some additional muddled lemon and orange in the glass. Though cheaper, the Sauza and its bigger taste was a more dynamic drink; the gently citrus-y Corzo went down as smooth as sap.



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