Search for the perfect margarita

Take a wobbly journey through some Sacramento bars as we sample varied versions of summer’s ideal beverage

Ah, the margarita. Yummy and satisfying, even in a martini glass.

Ah, the margarita. Yummy and satisfying, even in a martini glass.

Photo by Larry Dalton

The margarita is a deceptively complex concoction, filled to the salty brim with mystery, widely varied in presentation and riddled with questions. How many other drink orders—even once you’ve sorted through the menu of myriad flavors and ingredients—instantly trigger a pair of choices: “blended or on the rocks?” and “salt or no salt?”

Yet few other drinks, except perhaps the simple cerveza, say “summer” like a margarita. It can take the edge off a Sacramento summer heat wave, electrify a dry mouth with citrus tang, lend an air of celebratory elegance with its fancy glass, or throw you into a state of reckless abandon, compliments of that wild card of all liquors, tequila.

And so it was that I undertook the task of seeking out the perfect margarita, and unraveling its many mysteries until I could see the truth at the bottom of the glass. Did I succeed? It’s hard to say, but I’ll let you be the judge.

Before we proceed, let me tell you what this story is not: a comprehensive guide to the region’s best margarita hot spots. I gave up that goal early on as I asked around and got as many answers to “where’s the best margarita?” as advisers. It seems every bar serves a margarita that’s to somebody’s liking, so I resolved to break down the elements of the margarita that truly blended my soul.

I selected an even half-dozen bars close to my Midtown home. Two had reputations for serving great margaritas. One was the up-and-coming challenger, mixing margaritas by the gallon. Another made the list because it’s where the politically connected guzzle their booze. Then I threw in my favorite dive bar, so the low-brow would be represented. And even though I harbor anti-chain biases, I rounded out the Big Six with a national one on the river, simply because margaritas taste best when consumed on outdoor patios overlooking water.

First stop was El Centro Cocina Mexicana, which offers an impressive list of margaritas filled with the best tequila and other key ingredients in varying combinations. And for their fruit-infused margaritas, the flavors come from three fruit-filled glass containers behind the bar: strawberry, pineapple and kiwi. Very impressive.

My research assistant, Jenna, and I each ordered up a couple of different top-shelf margaritas, and they were served up in big martini glasses with ice. That’s martini glasses with ice. What, that doesn’t sound like fingernails on a chalkboard to you? Obviously, you aren’t a martini drinker, because any martini drinker will tell you that ice should never, ever, under any circumstances, be placed in a martini glass. That’s a cardinal sin, and I believe even illegal in some states.

Why, pray tell, I asked the bartender, do you serve margaritas on the rocks in a martini glass? “Because that’s how Randy Paragary says to do it,” answered our bartender, referring to the restaurant’s owner. An entirely insufficient answer. I sipped my drink in disgust, than ordered a couple more, which I also drank in disgust.

“It’s a shame,” I thought to myself, savoring what was otherwise a pretty damned good margarita, if a little on both the strong and expensive sides. “But I’m going to have to disqualify these guys.” Later that night, we staggered away, I still in disgust, but feeling better for having drawn a firm conclusion.

Next, I hit Benny’s (aka Sacramento Bar and Grill), and the bartender there served me a yummy margarita in a pint glass. That’s right, a goddamned pint glass. It was a beautiful thing, big and yummy, something that met your grip, seemed downright bottomless, and was the perfect mix: not too strong and not too tart.

In the interests of good journalism, and knowing that I was a bit tipsy on that first visit and therefore without a finely tuned palate, I decided to return to Benny’s a few nights later for another round. This time, Benny himself made my margarita, but he served it in some kind of foofy glass that resembled a brandy snifter.

The writer with his favorite: the Cadillac Margarita from Ernesto’s.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“Don’t the margaritas here come in pint glasses?” I asked, and was given a decisive “no.” I sipped at this strange drink, which tasted sort of like the first one, but it just wasn’t the same. It was an average margarita served in an uppity glass in a dive bar. What a muddle.

Clearly, I had glassware issues, which I’d hoped would be straightened up by a trip to Chevy’s-on-the-River, where I was sure there would be focus-group-tested margaritas served in authentic Americanized Mexican margarita glasses—but instead they came in beer mugs.

There were other problems here too, but it probably wasn’t the restaurant’s fault. I had too many research assistants on this trip, so we ordered by the pitcher, which is not the best way to drink a top-shelf margarita, because the Grand Marnier gets lost in the mix. And Jennesa, the one woman in the group of a half-dozen, convinced us to get a pitcher of these sickly sweet and purple “lava flow” margaritas, which our collective testosterone caused us to reject and heckle mercilessly. On top of that, it was cold and dark during our visit, so not even their great patio could redeem the stop. And when the $50 bill for the two pitchers came, well, let’s just say that I was still searching for satisfaction.

But satisfaction is exactly what I found at Ernesto’s, whose Cadillac Margaritas are THE BOMB! Served in those pint glasses that I love so much, the bartender leaves a little room at the top of the glass, which he serves along with a shot glass of Grand Marnier. So when you’re ready for your drink, you dump the shot in the margarita (which fills the drink to the rim and offers visuals of the dark liqueur rippling down through the ice) and take a sip that is as close to perfection as I dreamed possible.

My buddy and I deputized a couple of lovely ladies sitting next to us as research assistants, and together the four of us proceeded to taste each margarita on the list (with the exception of the “black-and-white,” which I just couldn’t fathom), in varying combinations of blended and rocks, and each was proclaimed “spectacular” (or “shhpectickeler” as the night wore on). The consensus favorite was the blended Midori margarita, which was indeed excellent, but I’m a Cadillac man myself.

After a few days of recovery from the Ernesto’s affair (which we followed with more quality control trips back to Centro and Benny’s … ugh), I was ready to continue my quest with my first visit ever to Hukilau, the Hawaiian-themed bar opened by the owners of Paesano’s Pizzeria and Jack’s Urban Eats.

Immediately upon entering and seeing the rotating vats of not just margaritas—but also daiquiris, piña coladas, mai tais, rum runners and blue Hawaiians—I was skeptical. Then bartender Michelle served our margarita in these tall plastic daiquiri glasses with a hula dancer on the side. Plastic and pre-mixed … they weren’t good signs.

Brad and Kristen—my research assistants on this night—and I each tasted our drinks at the same time, then looked at one another with bright expressions. Not bad, not bad at all. Good flavor, and you could even taste the tequila, something you can’t in many bars that offer pre-blended margies. Then we noticed little shell necklaces sitting by our drinks, and Michelle told us they come with each blended drink, a nice touch that also helps you keep track of your consumption during a long night.

Like all the other spots I visited so far, Hukilau has a great patio (coincidence?). And since these margaritas are big and just $4.50 (or three bucks during happy hour), I see myself knocking back a few of these things once summer really heats up.

Our tour de margarita ended, appropriately enough, not long before last call at Simon’s. With strong drinks and open defiance of state anti-smoking laws, Simon’s is sort of like Benny’s for the Capitol crowd, a glorified dive bar where loosened ties are the uniform instead of tattoos.

Yet this was the first place where we got an actual margarita glass, the kind you cradle in your hand rather than hold, and the margaritas were almost flammable with strong, cheap tequila. I asked the bartender what makes a good margarita, and he matter-of-factly answered “tequila,” then proceeded to grab the bottle and top our drinks off with even more booze.

As I wobbled home from a week’s worth of margarita questing, I was left with one less-than-profound notion. Well, actually two, because the first was “why couldn’t my cheap-ass bosses give me an expense account for what turned out to be costly research?” But my main thought was: summer, like a fun night out drinking margaritas, is what you make of it.

You can sweat the glassware or the ingredients or the cost … or you can just have a good time. And while I needed to find a few things to scrutinize so I could write more than “margaritas are yummy,” lemme tell ya, I’ve had a good time. And I’m just giddy with the prospect of another Sacramento summer on the horizon. Cheers.

Entertainment - Drive-ins divulged!