When you start to Google the word "lime" these days, the first thing that pops up is "lime prices," followed by "lime prices going up," "lime prices increase," and "lime prices rise." If you're looking for recipes with lime, you're going to have to dig a little deeper, because right now, all the news is about the green stuff. Money, that is.
Mexico is one of the world's largest lime producers. The country just south of us provides the United States with 97 percent of the limes we consume, or nearly 500,000 tons annually, according to the Wall Street Journal. But this winter, Mexico's lime-growing regions were hurt by unusually heavy rains and wind. And then there are the cartels, which are plundering farms and hijacking trucks full of limes because the green citrus has become so valuable. Limes are up to as much as $1 each in grocery stores, and a 40-pound crate, typically about $25 has risen to $100. Currently, limes are worth more by weight than crude oil in Mexico.
With Cinco de Mayo just around the corner, restaurateurs and bar owners aren't really sure what to do. The commemoration of the Battle of Puebla is the biggest margarita-drinking day in the Unites States, but bars are having to severely cut back on the amount of juice they're using in order to keep prices relatively even.
Some bars have resorted to garnishing drinks that would otherwise take limes (like a gin and tonic) with lemon. Others are just waiting for you to request a garnish (No, really, I want my Corona dressed). A bar in California is offering drink deals to customers who bring in bags of limes from their home gardens.
Here in Houston, people seem to be taking a less proactive approach.
Anvil Bar & Refuge hasn't raised any prices in light of the lime crisis, at least they hadn't when I was there drinking a nice, tart Southside a few days ago. The Pastry War has kept its prices steady as well, and owner Bobby Heugel says he pretty much has to maintain the status quo.
"Bars that serve fresh cocktails have to acknowledge that fruit trees don't care about drink cost," Heugel says. "Plus, let's be honest...if a bar wanted to make a lot of money they wouldn't be using fresh products anyway."
Fortunately, The Pastry War serves several cocktails that highlight other fruits, like the gin-based pomegranate frozen margarita, recently profiled by Travel & Leisure magazine, which uses some of the house margarita mix (with lime), but cuts it with other ingredients.
Goro & Gun has taken the same route, revamping the Spring menu to focus on drinks that don't include lime.
"Instead of raising any prices, I have focused on limiting and maximizing lime usage," explains beverage director Alex Gregg. "When our new menu rolled out three weeks ago, I wrote it in such a way that it was less lime dependent. We now juice significantly less lime juice to start our shifts, and juice as often as needed in small increments as the shift progresses, thereby eliminating nearly all waste that we previously experienced regarding lime juice."
Gregg notes that while he saw the first drop in lime prices in months just this week, he doesn't think the problem is over just yet. With the demand for lemons increasing due to the price of limes, the price of lemons has risen as well.
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"This is by far the worst situation I've ever seen, but it is not the first time I've seen citrus prices get out of control for various reasons," Gregg says. "If the problem doesn't improve, I think we may start seeing more drastic changes to the bars we love, but for now, the Margarita is still our (Houston's) house cocktail."
Of course, bars aren't the only ones suffering from increased lime prices. Restaurants that serve ceviche and guacamole are hurting too, as are the numerous Vietnamese restaurants in Houston, many of whom have stopped serving lime slices as a garnish with pho, or at least cut down on the amount of lime you get with any given order.
Unfortunately, there's no end in sight--not until next year's harvest, which will hopefully be more...um...fruitful. Until then, California will have to pick up the slack. The Golden State's lime season begins late summer and goes into fall. Of course, it only accounts for about one percent of all the limes we consume here in America, but every little bit helps.
Now, pass me a lemon margarita. Or whatever you call that.