I was raised on Tex-Mex food in Corpus Christi and San Antonio. Breakfast tacos were the only way to get the day really going, and a huge bowl of chips and salsa seemed a perfectly acceptable dinner dish. I obsessed over finding the best fish tacos in town, and I learned that the best margaritas come from good, simple ingredients.
Before I moved to Houston to write restaurant reviews for the Houston Press, I was living in Missouri. I'd been living there for two years while I worked on my master's degree, and I often lamented the poor quality of Mexican food in the Show Me State. I tried crappy Mexican restaurant after crappy Mexican restaurant in search of something that tasted like home. I never found it, but along the way I did drink more wannabe margaritas than any person ever should.
In Missouri, people don't grow citrus trees. All the citrus there is imported. Now, we don't have an abundance of lime or grapefruit trees here in Houston, either, but we are capable of growing them, and we certainly know what good limes taste like. In Missouri, everyone seems perfectly happy to sip margaritas made of bottled lime juice or, worse yet, sour mix.
I thought I'd left that unfortunate laissez-faire attitude toward limes behind me when I moved back to Texas, especially when I visited the new El Tiempo Cantina on Navigation, the subject of this week's cafe review, for one of their famous margaritas. What I found was confusing.
The margarita on the rocks I was served at El Tiempo both looked and tasted as if it were made with sour mix. It was chemical-y and overly sweet, and I couldn't even taste the tequila. I passed it to my friend, who is himself an expert in Tex-Mex food, and he confirmed that it was a disgrace of a margarita.
In an effort to determine how a place that serves such a mediocre marg gets so much credit for making a wonderful one, I set out to visit some of the other El Tiempos in town to see if maybe it was a site-specific issue.
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After a bit of poor planning on my part, I ended up at the El Tiempo on Montrose (also known as 1308) on a Friday evening and found it so packed with college-age folks double-fisting margaritas that I could barely get to the bar. In spite of the fact that everyone there seemed to be more than enjoying the El Tiempo margaritas, I left. I was not drunk enough for a crowd like that.
The next day, I went to the El Tiempo on Richmond around lunchtime in hopes of snagging a tequila and lime cocktail, and found myself in the opposite situation of the night before. It was empty. I sat alone at the bar and ordered a single margarita, which I proceeded to down fairly quickly, more because I felt awkward drinking alone on a Saturday at 1 p.m. than because it was delicious.
It was certainly better than the first margarita I'd tried at the new El Tiempo, but it didn't blow my mind. The bartender told me it was a mixture of orange juice, lime juice, sugar and tequila. But it tasted like watery limeade with a hint of tequila. Por qué, El Tiempo, por qué?
I realize that, in all of this, I haven't even mentioned the food. After all, I'm not a bar critic, I'm a restaurant critic. But I feel that a proper Tex-Mex restaurant has to master the basics, all of them. El Tiempo has the chips and salsas down. It has the queso. It's even got some not-so-basic dishes that are pretty tasty. But I have a hard time stomaching all of that without a smooth, tart, biting margarita with which to wash it all down.