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.
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.
"In my mind, who makes the best Bloody Mary? It's a bartender. A real margarita should be made how Tamayo made it, with fresh lime and fresh lemon."
And if you can't get that, settle for great, divey atmosphere.
Which we found at our very last stop of the night, the Satire Lounge (1920 East Colfax Avenue). Yes, this is the place where the Smothers Brothers once played, but it's also a longtime mainstay for people in search of good, hot, greasy Mexican fare. While the red walls and dark wood have been lightened and brightened until the Satire now has the feel of a true cantina -- especially in the dining room off the bar, where TVs were blaring the end of the Avs game -- time has stood still in other ways. The #7, for example, still brings you the tasty egg burrito/cheese enchilada/beef taco it did two decades ago, all smothered in green. And if Joey doesn't deliver it himself with a trademark "This plate is hot" admonition, he's still in residence -- literally, since he lives upstairs -- sitting at the end of the bar greeting customers.
The Satire is part of Pete Contos's ever-lengthening chain of eateries, and like his nearby Pete's Kitchen, it knows how to cater to hungry customers: The kitchen is open until 1:30 a.m. Forget the plate; this place is hot -- but we could do without the pineapple juice in the margarita mix.
Open-and-shut cases: The metro area recently gained a great deli with Deli Tech (8101 East Belleview Avenue), an eatery so admirable that it earned Best New Restaurant -- of any kind -- honors in the Best of Denver 2002. But good intentions alone weren't enough to sustain Jeff's Diner (731 Quebec Street). Earlier this spring, Jeff Auerbach closed the family-friendly, all-kosher diner that he'd opened only last year. Even though Auerbach's restaurant is closed, he's still keeping kosher: He owns Auerbach's Lyco Meat Co., a kosher meatpacking plant in Commerce City. The Squealing Pig (2700 East Third Avenue), an Irish pub, is packing people into the former home of Petra's. But don't look for Petra Barnes to move her Cajun/Creole party spot to Denver's City Park Golf Course -- even though Petra's answering machine still promises that Petra's on the Park will be moving into the clubhouse at 2500 York Street. Instead, when that $2.5 million clubhouse celebrates its grand opening on June 11, the restaurant inside will be Bogies, an "upscale sports bar and grill," according to city golf manager Tom Woodard.
Meanwhile, all systems are go for the long-anticipated opening of Adega Restaurant & Wine Bar (1700 Wynkoop), which has weathered a few delays of its own. On May 29, it will start serving in the former home of Señorita's Cantina and, before that, Sostanza. Maybe the third time will be a charm.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.