By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
By the end of an evening of margarita-testing, our teeth tasted like SweeTarts. Gritty, sour and vaguely fruity -- a sad reminder of the apple, orange and pineapple juices we'd found bartenders around town inexplicably adding to the standard lime-tequila concoction.
Despite the resurgent martini's amazing staying power and all of the new frou-frou cocktails spilling over at local bars, the margarita remains Denver's favorite mix -- largely because of this city's obsession with Mexican food. The drink itself dates back to the 1930s, although its origins are murkier than your brain after a night of drinking margs: The best-documented story credits Danny Herrera, who owned Rancho La Gloria (between Rosarita Beach and Tijuana) and created the drink for a showgirl who was allergic to every kind of alcohol but tequila.
That's the version that Roger Sherman, aide to Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas, decided to go with, anyway, as he organized the "Quest for the Best Margarita" on Quince de Mayo 2002. Besides historical tidbits (Sherman lived in Mexico for eight months and knows his margs), he also provided scorecards and a limo for the intrepid tasters, who managed to hit seven spots -- and might have gone further had Denver restaurants not rolled up their sidewalks so early.
650 Sherman St.
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Central Denver
1610 16th St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
3100 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
In the end, the team determined that drinks already crowned the best by Westword remain the top in town. Unfortunately, we downed them during the first few stops of the evening, which made the rest of the night rather anti-climactic.
Racines (850 Bannock Street) had snagged Best Margarita in Westword's Best of Denver awards three years running -- until the 2002 edition, that is. It's still a winner, though: Mixed in an elegant shaker and poured into a hip glass, it boasts fresh juice in the mix and Sauza as the house tequila. At $4.95, this drink wins points for value and presentation as well as taste. It can also be found at three handy locations: Sibling restaurants Dixons (1610 16th Street) and Goodfriends (3100 East Colfax Avenue) follow the same recipe. Goodfriends may soon add outdoor seating (Racines and Dixons already have patios); sipping a few margs streetside while watching the passing parade along Colfax promises to be a heady experience.
A visit to Larimer Square is always lively these days, thanks to a trio of new restaurants added to the block over the past year. The first to arrive, Tamayo (1400 Larimer Street), pours an impressive variety of tequilas; the Herradura blanco makes a mean house margarita. Even more admirable is the guacamole, its $7.95 price tag justified by the great presentation and the fresh, fresh ingredients. Down the block is Lime (1424 Larimer), which won two coveted Best of Denver 2002 awards: Best New Bar and Best Margarita. It's living up to both honors. The space (it occupies the downstairs area that was once Cafe Promenade; Gene Amole used to broadcast his KVOD show from here at lunch on Fridays) is unbelievably cool and made even better now that the back doors are open, leading to the patio and a convenient back entry. And the frozen marg, the Mighty, is a wonder well deserving of top prize -- although we could have done without the bossy admonition not to have too many.
Two blocks away, the Rio Grande (1525 Blake Street) draws the line at three -- but we couldn't finish even one of the house margs, a top-secret concoction that hints of Everclear and the aforementioned apple juice but tastes mainly like trouble.
A convoluted trip through Five Points finally landed us at Tosh's Hacienda (3090 Downing Street), a contender as Denver's longest-running Mexican restaurant (can any other eatery beat its 56 years?). Tosh's had been our choice for dinner, but the kitchen was closed by the time we finally arrived, so we contented ourselves with a pitcher of house margs that introduced us to the concept of "tween."
In the beverage industry, tween is used to make drinks frothy and foamy, explains Boulder Beverage Company co-owner Brian Gansmann, who was along for the ride. Gansmann knows his margarita mixes: BBC's "Margaritas to Go" earned a Best Margarita in a Box award this year. And Westword tipplers aren't the only ones who appreciate it: Gansmann and partner Gil Gonzo piloted their '47 Airstream to Minnesota last month so they could do a demo of the product for QVC-TV (that's quality, value and convenience, Gansmann points out) at its Mall of America studio. "That was right after the FBI hauled us in, by the way," he adds. In a case of extremely bad timing, the BBC boys pulled the Airstream into the giant mall's parking lot right as rumors hit the news that terrorists had threatened local shopping centers. But even the FBI couldn't find fault with "Margaritas to Go."
As the Quince Quest progressed, Gansmann had ample opportunity to note just how wrong a margarita can go, as our crew encountered Italian margaritas and margarita martinis and mango margs and one particularly vile concoction that tasted like Tang. "Forget about investing in tequila," he says. "Invest in a good mix. You can have the best tequila in the world, but it's only 20 to 25 percent of the drink.