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Churrascos Reintroduces Diners to Classic Cocktails With a South American Twist

In this week's cafe review, you can read all about the magnificent meat and tantalizing tres leches at the newest Churrascos restaurant at Gateway Memorial City. However, there's something else about Churrascos--and, indeed, all the Cordúa restaurants--that should not be overlooked: The drinks.

Back in March 2013, James Watkins joined the Cordúa restaurant group as sommelier and beverage director. Since then, he's overhauled the wine list and created a number of classic but uniquely Cordúa cocktails that have been wowing diners. Don't go to Churrascos or Américas expecting to fill up on steak and plantain chips alone. Sample some spirits or drink some wine, and I daresay you'll find the booze just as impressive as that classic grilled steak.

"The idea was classic cocktails of the Americas," Watkins, a native of Pasadena, Texas, explains. "Just like the food represents the indigenous food of the Americas, you've got cocktails that are well known in the Americas. They cover all the spirit categories, too."

The cocktail list isn't long--less than 20 drinks total--but it is diverse, offering gin, tequila, vodka, pisco, bourbon, whiskey, cognac and a Brazilian liquor called cachaça, which is made from sugarcane.

Watkins is committed to the notion of making as much as possible fresh and in-house. He's started making his own tonic water and grapefruit soda, both of which are used in a number of drinks on the menu. The tonic water recipe is a modified version of Jeffrey Morgenthaler's version, which he's made available to the public online.

"Tonic water traditionally in a restaurant sucks, honestly," Watkins says. "Tonic itself is made out of a Peruvian bark (cinchona), so it fits the brand and the concept well. And it's delicious. I wanted to take something simple and old school and bring it back."

Watkins got Morgenthaler's permission to use his basic recipe, but he's tweaked it a bit, removing some of the agave nectar and adding acid phosphate to make it more fizzy.

The paloma is Watkins's favorite drink on the menu (and probably mine as well). He describes it as "visual and progressive, and it gets more grapefruity as you drink it." The grapefruit soda used in the drink was developed by Watkins, and it takes longer to prepare than any of the other house-made mixers, because Watkins really wants to coax the grapefruit flavor out of the zest and juice by letting it simmer.

He assembles the drink with grapefruit juice ice cubes, so as you sip and the ice melts, the grapefruit flavor becomes stronger. No watered-down cocktails here!

Watkins is also particularly proud of the pisco punch, a drink originally developed in San Francisco in 1899. He uses a pineapple gomme syrup in the drink, which he says had been missing from most bars for the last 30 years, after pisco drinks fell out of favor. Now that they're enjoying a resurgence in popularity, Watkins has added three pisco-based drinks to the menu, including a traditional Pisco sour that he lights on fire during the final step for a brulée flavor and a bit of showmanship. The pisco punch also gets a bit of fire action--for a garnish, Watkins brulées pineapple slices that are soaked in almond syrup.

"My idea with cocktails is to make the garnish more approachable," he says. "I want drinks to be more sensory than just taste."

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Another unique contribution to the cocktail menu is the "Margarita of the Heavens," a $35 drink containing Don Julio 1942 tequila and Grand Marnier Centeniare.

"Why not?" Watkins says when asked why he put such an expensive drink on the menu. "We already have the ingredients. It's all about taking care of the ingredients when you prepare the cocktail. We have fresh juices, and we always have tequila and Grand Marnier. And you know, sometimes when you go out you only want one cocktail, not three or four. This is a special drink."

In addition to the cocktails with a South American flair, the wine list contains more South American wine than the average restaurant has. As Watkins will tell you, it's all about ensuring that the food and drink go together and tell a story about a culture.

"I think it goes a lot better with the food than what we had previously," he says in reference to the beverage overhaul from last fall. "Fits the concept a lot better. It's more driven to classics and South American. We had to take the mindset of the kitchen into the bar, to view it as a culinary enterprise."

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