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.
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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