Off Limits

"I'm going to go home and walk my dog and hug my wife, and maybe get a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita and a full night's sleep," Michael Brown, Colorado's most infamous export, said last Friday after he was pulled out of Louisiana. "And then I'm going to go right back to FEMA..."

Until Monday, at least, when "Brownie" -- as President George W. Bush likes to refer to the college roommate of his 2000 campaign manager -- was out of FEMA altogether. By then Brown no doubt needed a few stiff margs -- and there are none stiffer in the state where he lived for a decade (as the Lyons-based lawyer for an Arabian-horse association) than the super-secret Rio Grande Margarita. "So famous, it's infamous," boasts the website for the homegrown chain of Mexican cantinas. "It was never a conscious decision to create this legend," says director of marketing Christine Sullo. "It really just came out of word of mouth."

The marg, invented in 1986 when the first Rio opened in Fort Collins, is so potent that the owners instituted a limit of three after sampling their own creation. That rule is noted both on the menu -- "They pack a punch! No more than three per person, please" -- and a neon glass glowing on the wall of the LoDo outpost.

By number two, our Off Limits operatives had that same glow. Fortunately, they'd managed to pry a few facts from their server during their first round: Three shots of tequila -- Cuervo Gold, Sauza and Juarez -- are added to a mix whose makeup is so confidential that it's brought into the bar rather than made on site. The house mix isn't even used for virgin margaritas (those are made with a mango version), which led our operatives to suspect there might be even more alcohol in the concoction.

Everclear has long been rumored, along with apple juice -- Sullo says the Rio marg contains neither and will cop only to the Cuervo -- but a more likely secret ingredient is a hammer, because by the end of margarita one, heads were hurting while spewing inebriated wisdom. "The fact that you think there are smart drunks and dumb drunks makes me think that you are drunk," one operative told another.

The going got much smoother with two and three, after which our operatives were so cheery and full of love for Denver and their fellow man and server -- who refused to bring another marg, not even a mini -- that they might as well have been flacking for the Chamber of Commerce. "The whole three-drinks thing, it's all marketing," one slurred.

She retracted that statement the next morning, when she couldn't lift her head off the bathroom floor.

Off Limits has done extensive research on the outer limits of tippling, and until recently, the Rio was the only bar that had a posted cutoff. But last month, Benny's joined the club. Back when owner Benny Armas was still a cook at the Oak Alley Inn, a future Off Limits operative drank a documented 21 gin-and-tonics the day she quit her job -- but two decades and two locations later, Armas is a respectable businessman with an unbelievably good business at his Seventh Avenue spot, a second location now open at FlatIron Crossing, and this warning printed on the new menu: "limit four (4) drinks per customer."

Two days and many aspirin later, our recovered operatives ventured to the bar at Benny's, where the Broncos game gave them plenty of reason to drink. The first house marg tasted a lot less like a toxic gumbo, but by the end of round four, one operative was shouting in a voice as squeaky as their teeth were tasting. "I'm going to go play piddlywinks," she announced.

Armas introduced the Benny's limit -- "It's not for professionals like you," he assured Off Limits -- after one customer had a mishap with an automobile after leaving his establishment.

Bet she's still feeling better than Brownie today.

Scene and herd: Michael Brown was the butt of plenty of late-night jokes last week -- and who was that standing behind him in an old clip on Letterman? Mayor John Hickenlooper, who'd shared a dais with Brownie at a local Red Cross photo opportunity last year. ... Conspicuous by his absence in last weekend's blanket coverage of evacuees in Colorado was Governor Bill Owens. That's because he'd made his own escape to Ukraine, where he spoke at Sunday's dedication of the Step Toward Unity monument to victims of terror in Kiev. "It was a very impressive ceremony," says gubernatorial spokesman Dan Hopkins, "and he was honored to be there." Especially since that government -- not ours -- paid Owens's way.


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