There were a couple of striking-looking women sitting at the bar at Sabor, one of the trendiest restaurants in town. They were drinking some of the restaurant's signature frozen cocktails and talking about the Astros' prospects for next year. I ordered a pomegranate margarita and joined in the conversation. To make my drink, the spiky-haired bartender poured a couple of shots of inky-looking pomegranate concentrate into a stemmed cocktail glass. Then he added a large scoop of frozen margarita that looked like lemon sherbet.
When I stirred the slowly melting drink, it created a psychedelic pattern of purple and yellow swirls. Sitting there on the bar, the margarita was as mesmerizing as a lava lamp. And when I picked it up and drank it, it created a head-numbing rush of slushy, exotic fruit flavors with a nice tequila jolt.
I ordered some red snapper ceviche, the women got some guacamole and we all agreed that Roger Clemens was not coming back.
The upscale margaritas at Sabor come with those classic complimentary cocktail accompaniments, a basket of tortilla chips and a bowl of hot sauce -- only at Sabor, the chips are made from flour tortillas and the salsa is made with the finest roasted tomatoes. Sabor's menu includes such local favorites as fish tacos and Caesar salads. Then there's innovations such as lobster ceviche and duck carnitas.
"You've got to have the Tex-Mex margaritas and chips and salsa in the Montrose," Sabor's owner, Jon Paul, explains. "But I don't have queso -- I don't want to be 100 percent Tex-Mex."
Jon Paul is the former maitre d' at Tony's. After 16 years in the "prim and proper" world of fine-dining restaurants, he decided to do something "funner" when it came time to open his own place. "My concept is modern Mexican with some Tex-Mex thrown in," he says.
Drinks represent approximately 40 percent of the restaurant's revenue. "Mixed drinks are where you make your money," Jon Paul says. "A lot of my drinks are colorful, fruity drinks -- margaritas and mojitos. We don't sell much Scotch and water." The restaurant doesn't sell much wine, either.
After years of selling wine at a steep markup, Jon Paul shies away from this traditional revenue source for upscale restaurants. "You buy a bottle of wine at a restaurant for 80 dollars, and then you go to Randalls or Kroger and see the same wine for 30 dollars less, and you feel ripped off. There is no reason to gouge people," Jon Paul says.
In fact, the markup on mixed drinks is even higher than the markup on wine, but there's a difference. The bottle of wine you drink at a restaurant tastes the same at home -- exotic cocktails are hard to duplicate.
Latino food and cocktails dominate the casual dining market in Houston. The food may be Tex-Mex or modern Mexican, but the format is always the same -- a dining room that's laid out around a prominent central bar area. Call it the contemporary cantina, if you like.
A few days later and a few miles away, I had another frozen margarita at Chuy's on Westheimer. The pale green slush was so thickly frozen that the straw stood straight up in the center of the glass. I ate the first few bites the way you eat a snow cone, scooping off slush with my upper lip to create a mouthful. Chuy's margaritas are a Houston standard: potent, not too sweet and served in large glasses.
It was Chuy's "Green Chile Festival," when the restaurant roasts green chiles and offers a special menu featuring them. I got an item called "tuna tacos," which had two corn tortillas buried under a pile of lettuce, tomatoes and green chile salsa with two big filets of yellowfin tuna grilled medium rare on top. You had to eat some with a knife and fork before you could make a taco out of it, so maybe they should call it a taco salad. But the tuna was exceptional. What a surprise to see rare tuna at Chuy's!
The dish was designed by an old friend of mine named David Garrido, who joined Chuy's earlier this year after working for more than a decade as a chef at such landmark fine-dining establishments as Jeffrey's in Austin and Routh Street in Dallas. "I love fine dining, but you can't eat fine dining every day," he says.
"Anyway, developing new concepts for Chuy's is a lot more fun," he continues. "I am working on what I call a 'taco bar.'"
Does Garrido consider the concept a major restaurant trend in the making? "I think this is the next evolution of Texas food -- a bar with Mexican snacks; you don't even call it a restaurant anymore," he says.
Garrido, who coauthored the cookbook Nuevo Tex-Mex with me, doesn't much care what you call his "taco bar" food. "Nuevo Tex-Mex, Modern Mexican, it doesn't matter what you call it," he says. "And don't get me wrong, at Chuy's there will always be a place for an old-fashioned combination plate covered with melted cheese. But there's also going to be a place for tuna tacos."
But in the end, he admits, the food will be whatever sells the most margaritas. "You are really making money on the drinks -- more than on the food. So the higher the percentage of drinks, the higher the profit. They're getting $15 for premium margaritas in Dallas."
Stop for a second and consider the profit margin on a frozen margarita. At $11 a bottle for regular tequila, a restaurant owner can figure on around a 15-percent liquor cost on a six-dollar margarita -- that's $5 in profit. And while using premium tequila might raise the liquor cost as high as 25 or 30 percent, the restaurant would still make $10 on each $15 cocktail.
At these kinds of margins, it's no wonder restaurant owners are willing to adapt their menus to suit the tastes of drinkers. What's really evolving is a "margarita cuisine."
In 2002, doing research for The Tex-Mex Cookbook, I sat down with Mariano Martinez, the man who made frozen margaritas famous. The restaurant where we met, Mariano's Mexican Cuisine in Dallas, has since closed its doors.
In a foyer up front, the first frozen margarita machine was on display. The original frozen margaritas were served in those big, thick-stemmed cannonball-shaped beer schooners that are so popular in North Texas. The bar menu offered lots of top-shelf tequilas, but I ordered one of Mariano's original frozen margaritas.
The tequila was really little more than a background flavor. The salt of the rim and the sweetness of the drink mix were far more pronounced than the liquor -- which made the drink very popular with college kids and other imbibers on training wheels.
Over several of the icy cocktails, Martinez repeated the frozen margarita saga, a tale he has told countless times before: "When my father [Mariano Martinez, Sr.] opened his restaurant, El Charro, in the 1950s, you couldn't sell liquor by the drink in Texas. But he made frozen margaritas for people who brought their own tequila."
Martinez's frozen margarita was an adaptation of the frozen daiquiri, which had been popularized by the unlikely trio of Ernest Hemingway, Fred Waring and John F. Kennedy. In the 1930s, Hemingway waxed eloquent about the frozen daiquiris of La Floridita bar in Havana, where they were made using shaved ice. Musician Fred Waring invented the blender in 1938 and sold hundreds of thousands of them before World War II by whipping up instant frozen daiquiris wherever he went. JFK drank frozen daiquiris before dinner in the White House, which gave the drink a burst of publicity in the 1960s.
The blender recipe for a frozen daiquiri was rum, lime juice, ice and a sweetener. Substitute tequila for rum, and you get a frozen margarita. The drink was little more than a curiosity in the 1960s, a way to use that souvenir bottle of tequila you brought home from your Mexican vacation.
"When I opened this restaurant in 1971, people came to me for margaritas, too," says Martinez. "Dad gave me his recipe -- it was tequila, lime juice and orange liqueur. His secret ingredient was a splash of simple syrup. You put it in the blender with ice until it got slushy."
The snowball that set off the margarita avalanche got rolling in 1970 when the Texas Legislature passed the "liquor by the drink" amendment. Ever since the end of prohibition, the draconian Texas alcoholic beverage code has attempted to "maintain the public temperance" by limiting the availability of liquor. Half of the state's counties remain dry to this day.
Beer and wine were available at restaurants in "wet" counties -- or you could bring your own bottle and buy "setups" to mix your own drinks. But the new law gave each wet community the right to vote on whether local restaurants could sell cocktails. In 1971, Dallas voted "yes."
With his substantial head start, Martinez wanted to make Mariano's Mexican Restaurant the Dallas destination for frozen margaritas. "I taught my bartender how to make the drink, but people complained about it. They said it tasted different every time. I tried to talk to the bartender about it one night, but he was sick of squeezing all those limes and threatened to quit," remembered Martinez.
"The next morning I was getting coffee at the 7-11 and saw some kids getting Icees out of the machine," he said. "That's when it hit me." 7-11 wasn't eager to help him purchase the machines, so Martinez ended up buying a soft-serve ice cream machine. "We tinkered with the machine and the recipe for a long time," he laughed. "We had a lot of tasting parties."
When you make a frozen margarita in a blender, you dilute the drink with added ice, he explained. But if you put the same ingredients in an ice cream machine, they won't freeze because the alcohol content is too high. First he experimented with diluting the solution with enough water to allow it to freeze. But the resulting cocktail tasted too weak. The solution, Martinez told me, was to increase the sugar. With a high enough brix level (the scientific measurement of sugar content), you can freeze quite a bit of alcohol.
The sweet frozen margaritas at Mariano's Mexican Cuisine became an instant sensation. The Dallas Cowboys drank them; Trini Lopez and Lee Trevino drank them. But it was coeds from nearby Southern Methodist University who really spread the drink's fame.
"The margarita made tequila an acceptable drink for women," explains Marc N. Scheinman, marketing professor at Pace University's Lubin School of Business. Scheinman is the author of a study called "The Global Market for Tequila." Demographics played a huge role in the popularity of the frozen margarita. "The spread of the frozen margarita coincided with large numbers of young women coming into the workforce," says Scheinman. "It also coincided with a rise in immigration and the Mexicanization of American cuisine."
The rise of the margarita in the late 1970s and early 1980s set off a radical change in the Tex-Mex restaurant business. Vintage Tex-Mex restaurants didn't even have bars, but from the 1970s on, the bar became the center of every Tex-Mex restaurant.
Along with the new focus on the bar came a different atmosphere. Whereas customers had once gone to simple Tex-Mex diners to enjoy a combination plate and depart, the festive new cantinas were designed to be hangouts. Many featured outdoor seating on patios or decks. The gang who went to get a drink after work now included more women, and they favored Tex-Mex restaurants over male-dominated bars and taverns.
The drink changed the way we ordered. Cocktail-friendly chips and salsa were more likely to be upgraded with accompaniments like chile con queso and guacamole. Easily shared bar snacks like a big pile of nachos or fajita meat with a stack of tortillas replaced individual entres like combination plates as happy hour stretched into dinner.
The lobster ceviche at Sabor and the tuna tacos at Chuy's are the latest in a long line of snacks designed to sell more margaritas. But the frozen margarita not only changed the way we eat in Texas, it transformed the liquor business.
The explosive growth of the frozen margarita created a sharp spike in the demand for tequila. Between 1975 and 1995, tequila sales in the United States increased more than 1,500 percent. From 1995 to 2005, sales doubled again. In the early 1990s, tequila producers were overwhelmed by the demand. They were running out of agave, the plant that tequila is made from. The potential loss of revenues prompted the regulatory body that supervises tequila production in Mexico to liberalize the rules.
Whereas all tequila was once made with 100 percent agave, now tequila could be distilled from 51 percent agave supplemented with cane sugar. The result was cheap tequila bottled solely for the purpose of making margaritas, says Scheinman.
"The margarita is the No 1. cocktail in America," Scheinman says. "Sixty-five percent of the tequila sold in the United States goes into margaritas." The continuing popularity of the cocktail is having unimaginable repercussions. "The rise of the margarita meant that for the first time the major market for tequila was the U.S., not Mexico."
The United States surpassed Mexico in tequila consumption in 2000, and the market continues to grow, fueled by the nation's insatiable demand for margaritas. In Mexico, where tequila is a macho drink taken neat with a chaser, the American frozen cocktail is beginning to make headway among women. The drink is also gaining ground in Europe as part of the Tex-Mex restaurant phenomenon.
Mariano Martinez never received a patent or trademark for his idea. He doesn't think it would have been possible anyway. "I just started making margaritas in a machine that already existed," he shrugged.
"I go places now and I tell people I invented the frozen margarita, and they say, 'Yeah, right.'"
The "ultimate margarita" at the new Trece restaurant in Dallas is made with Herradura Seleccion Suprema tequila, fresh lime juice, some organic agave nectar and a dash of Red Bull. It sells for $45. And that's a bargain, considering that Herradura Seleccion Suprema sells for around $350 a bottle.
The Trece Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Lounge includes a cocktail bar, a tequila lounge, a patio and a VIP room. The menu includes such Nuevo Tex-Mex appetizers as lobster nachos garnished with jalapeo jelly and a seafood cocktail called a lobster mango margarita. The restaurant is designed to cash in on the emerging ultra-premium tequila trend.
As frozen margarita drinkers have grown up, they've started experimenting with more sophisticated cocktails. Shaker drinks like cosmos and martinis have inspired many margarita lovers to switch from frozen to shaken margaritas. Some consider shaken margaritas, sometimes known as "Mexican martinis," to be better showcases for premium tequilas.
I have tried many premium tequilas in many versions of the shaken margarita over the years. I consider them all a waste of good tequila. Reposados and aejo tequilas are aged in oak casks so they are easy to sip, and their mellow flavor is lost in a glass of lime juice. I would no more make a margarita with a Herradura Aejo than I would make a whiskey sour with 12-year-old Macallan single malt Scotch.
The bold, vegetal flavor of plata (silver) tequila is what you want in a margarita. I drink good tequila straight up, and I make frozen margaritas with inexpensive silver tequilas. At Spec's, the rotgut tequilas start at around $8.50 for 750 milliliters. Sauza is the best of the low end at around $13 a bottle, and it's my usual choice for frozen margaritas.
Cuervo Gold is considered a premium tequila; it sells for $16.83. The premium tequila category has recently expanded to include a line of flavored tequilas also made by Cuervo. Cuervo Citrico, Cuervo Pineapple and Cuervo Oranjo (is that some bad Spanglish, or what?) are available at the same price as Cuervo Gold.
Super-premium tequilas such as Centinela, Herradura, El Tesoro and Chinaco go for between $30 and $60 a bottle. This type of tequila will account for 7.4 percent of the 4.5 million cases of tequila that will be sold in the U.S. in 2006. And sales of super premiums are growing at about 15 percent a year.
Beyond super-premium, there's the new ultra-premiums, which include Don Julio Real Tequila at $312, and Patron Gran Platinum at $203 a bottle. The most expensive tequila Spec's sells is Herradura Seleccion Suprema at $342 for a 750-milliliter bottle.
In August of this year, Brown-Forman, the liquor-marketing giant that owns Jack Daniel's, bought the Herradura tequila distillery for $876 million. At a time when all other categories of hard liquor are either declining or showing flat sales, liquor companies are spending their money on the only category that's showing any growth, according to Scheinman.
The concept behind super-premium and ultra-premium liquor marketing was inspired by the single malt Scotch binge of the early 1990s. Bottles of rare and unusual single malts brought astronomical prices from connoisseurs, especially in Japan.
In an attempt to cash in, American liquor marketers bottled "single cask" bourbons with unique-looking labels. Several of these supposedly artisanal bourbons were bottled at the Jim Beam distillery from the same whiskey that would otherwise have ended up in Jim Beam bottles.
And then there was the super-premium vodka craze. Purer and cleaner vodkas at ever-escalating prices captured the public's imagination for a while. But in a blind taste test of 21 vodkas conducted by Eric Asimov of The New York Times, Smirnoff, the least expensive bottle, beat out all the expensive super-premium vodkas, including Grey Goose.
I had similar results with a tequila taste test over a decade ago in which I compared super-premiums like El Tesoro with common brands and found little difference in flavor. The ultra-premium vodkas and tequilas appeal to the same people who buy Kristal and Dom Prignon -- people who seek to impress others with how much money they have. There will always be a market for such luxury products.
It's not clear whether we are ready for $45 margaritas in Houston, but I have no doubt we'll soon have a chance to buy them.
Ra Sushi Bar on Westheimer is owned by Benihana, the company that coined the word "eatertainment" to describe the experience of dining on Japanese food while watching the chef clown around with cooking utensils. The company has evidently branched out into the related field of "drinkertainment" with this new venture. The square footage of the chicly decorated second-story space seems to be equally divided between the bar area and the dining room. And on a recent Thursday night, all of the tables in the bar area were occupied, while the dining room sat mostly empty.
I ordered a mango margarita, which is served on the rocks in a tumbler garnished with a lime slice. Mango margs are usually frozen, so I asked the waiter what was in this one. He said it contained silver tequila, triple sec, sweet and sour mix, and mango syrup.
I also asked him what kind of sushi he recommends with a mango margarita. "The crazy monkey roll," he replied without hesitation. The roll includes smoked salmon, mango, cream cheese, avocado, tempura bits and cashews. The drink and the sushi roll pair well -- they both taste like mango, and they're both horrible. If you're wondering when it was that sushi bars started serving margaritas, you haven't been paying attention.
A couple of weeks ago, on a long highway trip, I pulled into the Applebee's at the intersection of I-30 and Texas 59 in Texarkana, Texas, looking for a decent hamburger. The dining room of the restaurant was designed around a prominent bar. At my booth, I found a table card with a special margarita menu that included frozen mango swirl margaritas, frozen wildberry swirl margaritas and a premium Cuervo 1800 margarita with both Cointreau and Grand Marnier, shaken over ice.
The appetizer menu included queso and tortilla chips; "nachos nuevos," made with spicy ground beef, black beans, chile con queso, sour cream, lettuce, tomato and jalapeos; and a "chicken quesadilla grande" stuffed with grilled chipotle chicken, melted cheese, onion, tomato, bacon and jalapeos.
Top-shelf margaritas and nuevo Tex-Mex at Applebee's, a Kansas-based restaurant chain known for its burgers and boneless skinless chicken breasts? Perhaps it was inevitable. No American restaurant with a liquor license can afford to ignore the profit potential of margaritas.
Frozen Margaritas (From The Tex-Mex Cookbook)
Here's the easy way to make frozen margaritas at home. The frozen limeade concentrate makes the drinks extra-slushy without the addition of too much ice. Don't get the limeade concentrate out of the freezer until you need it!
Makes 1 large or 2 small frozen margaritas
3 shots tequila plata
1 shot triple sec (or Cointreau)
1/4 cup (3 heaping tablespoons) frozen limeade concentrate
2 cups crushed ice
Combine tequila, triple sec, limeade concentrate and crushed ice in a blender and puree until slushy. Put the salt in a saucer. Wet the rim of the glass with the lime wedge. Invert the glass in the saucer and coat the rim with salt. Pour the frozen mixture into the salted glass.
Sabor's pomegranate margarita
Pour 2 ounces pomegranate drink concentrate into a clear margarita glass, then pour the slush over the top.
Strawberry margarita: Put 3 tablespoons pureed strawberries in a clear glass and pour the margarita over the top.
Astroturf margarita: Pour a shot of Midori (green melon liqueur) into a clear glass and pour the margarita over the top.
Chuy's Mango Margaritas
You can use mango nectar if fresh mangos are too expensive, but this drink tastes much better with the fruit. If the drink tastes too sweet, add more lime juice.
Makes two small cocktails
2 shots tequila plata
1 shot Cointreau
1/4 fresh mango, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 cup crushed ice
Lime slices for garnish
Combine all the ingredients except the lime slices in a blender and blend until slushy. Serve in large martini glasses. Garnish each glass with a lime slice.
Applebee's Perfect Margaritas
The Applebee's version of the shaken margarita is so beloved in the heartland that recipe knockoff sites on the Internet are offering copycat recipes. Here's the real thing, according to an Applebee's bartender.
1 1/4 ounces Cuervo 1800 Reposado tequila
1/2 ounce Cointreau
1/2 ounce Grand Marnier
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1 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
3 ounces sweet & sour mix (or limeade)
Shake all the ingredients in an ice-filled shaker for at least a minute and then strain into a margarita glass filled with ice.