Margarita Afternoon: Tia Maria's Cantina and Mexican Restaurant Mixes a Fine One

The margarita is Houston's iconic restaurant cocktail. In this series -- Margarita Afternoon -- we'll take a close look at popular local versions of the drink and give you some great drinks.

Despite the dreadful location below a tangle of freeway ramps where the West Loop meets Highway 290, Tia Maria's Cantina & Mexican Restaurant is always crowded for lunch, and invariably packed for dinner. It's not just the simple equation of large portions of good Mexican food at a reasonable price that brings the customers in such large numbers.

No, the hallmark of most popular Mexican restaurants is a festive atmosphere. It feels like a holiday when you walk into Tia Maria's, and even as I took an inconspicuous booth in a corner, a large group of office workers gathered at a long table next to me for lunch, to animatedly celebrate, I don't know, Thursday afternoon.

The other big draw is Tia Maria's house margarita, and that was the reason I was there. To test a margarita, I usually ask for a shaken version, as a palate-numbing slush of a frozen margarita can be used to cover up all manner of shortcuts, such as bad sour mix, industrial-grade tequila and chemical-tasting triple sec.

However, I asked the server which version Tia Maria was famous for, and he said, "We have lots of flavors, but I recommend the regular frozen one." I always go with fame.

Chips and salsa were set down on the table, and quickly after that came a margarita in a custom glass that was half of a foot in diameter. The first sip, through the straw, was impressive. The Tia Maria margarita is perfectly balanced -- not too sweet, not too tart, not weak. Best of all, there are no fakey tastes.

Sipping it over the salted rim was even better. This margarita deserves its popularity. However, a margarita test isn't over until the end. When a margarita thaws, it shows its flaws. While I waited, I sampled the chips and salsa.

Tia Maria's tostada chips are freshly made and warm, and the salsa is served warm, too. The sauce is a simple mix of tomato and chiles, with no green flecks of herbs. The server comes around and refills the bowl with a pitcher of warm salsa.

After a long wait, I sipped from a tiny puddle, and the margarita still tasted delicious. There was a hint of bargain triple sec, but that's standard in a house margarita. After I stirred the drink, it was good until the last dram.

Style: House Frozen Speed Rating: Take your time, don't get a brain-freeze; this margarita is great all the way through. Tequila: Juarez White (nation's No. 4-selling tequila) Cost: $5.00 Dosage: 1 (These things are huge) Other House Flavors: Strawberry (very popular), Mango, Raspberry, Gold and Midori

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