Is there a more widely riffed-on classic cocktail than the margarita? Or, perhaps more accurately, is there a classic cocktail of which variations are more widely accepted and embraced? What started as a simple drink mixed with tequila, lime and sweetener has morphed into a canvas on which bartenders play out elaborate, booze-fueled fantasies. Cocktail menus at trendy Mexican restaurants often list a half-dozen variations on the margarita theme, adulterating the drink with everything from beer to jalapeños to prickly pear to frozen strawberries — sometimes all at the same time.
Some of those variations are quite good; others are merely drinkable. But those aren't what we're celebrating as we set the table for Cinco de Mayo. We're paying homage to the more classic versions of the margarita on menus around town, the house pours of citrus and tequila and maybe a little agave syrup or orange liqueur. We're honoring the margaritas you want to drink all afternoon long while you polish off a bushel of chips and a vat of salsa and a taco or two, to boot. The prospect of that food pairing was essential to making our list, and also the reason that this list doesn't include any of Denver's venerable classic cocktail bars, even though they often make excellent house margaritas. Essential, too, was the use of tequila (hey, the ’70s and ’80s really did a number on the margarita — including the fact that tequila was optional back then) and not using bottled sweet-and-sour mix. Even controlling for those factors, house margs still saw wide variation. Each one on this list is a worthy centerpiece for a lingering conversation, a round too many and another basket of chips.
Without further ado: Metro Denver twelve best house margaritas, in alphabetical order.
1. Adelitas Cocina y Cantina
1294 South Broadway
"Use a good brand" of all-natural tequila in your margarita, recommends Adelitas proprietor Brian Rossi. After all, "how many things can you do to a traditional margarita? It's about the materials that go into it." We'll vouch for that simple approach; it landed Adelitas our Best House Margarita award three years in a row, even as the bar staff switched tequila brands, thus tweaking this drink's backbone, and, more recently nixed all processed sugar, agave syrup and triple sec in its drinks. The restaurant is currently working with Arette tequila, which comes from one of the oldest tequila-producing families in Jalisco. Married to lime and beet sugar cooked down with oranges, it results in a cocktail that's smooth with a sweet-tart balance, an excellent showcase for the delicate nature of Arette.
2. Comida Cantina
3550 Brighton Boulevard, 303-296-2747
2501 Dallas Street, Aurora, 303-484-1632
721 Confidence Drive, Longmont, 720-204-6455
Comida's house margarita starts with Monte Alban Plata tequila, which gets mixed with sweet agave syrup, lemon, lime and orange juice. That last ingredient trumps up the orange note that's usually just background music in this cocktail, and it makes the drink easily one of the most poundable in this roundup. Luckily, you can order this margarita by the glass or by the massive jar-full; as long as you're not drinking alone, you ought to opt for the latter.
3. Dos Santos
1475 East 17th Avenue
We are absolute suckers for a good Tommy's margarita, so named for the San Francisco restaurant that made famous the blend of tequila, lime and simple syrup: it's sweeter than your triple-sec-spiked version, but it sure does go down easily, and come warm weather, it's all we want to drink. And so Dos Santos, which serves a Tommy's house margarita, had us — hook, lime and sinker — from first sip. To its simple blend of lime and agave, Dos Santos adds high-quality Arette tequila, a complex and verdant showcase in a drink otherwise simply presented in a jar with a wedge of lime and a bit of salt. This margarita earned Dos Santos our Best House Margarita award in this year's Best of Denver.
4. El Chingon
4326 Tennyson Street
Our entreaty to Coin-style margarita enthusiasts: Get thee to El Chingon, which serves up one of the best Coin-style quaffers in this town as its namesake margarita. Fortaleza Blanco tequila, Cointreau and fresh-squeezed citrus blend here for a well-balanced drink unadulterated with excess sugar, and a fine-salt rim provides a nice alternative to the coarse version you normally encounter.
5. El Jefe
2450 West 44th Avenue
When first your lips touch El Jefe's La Casa marg, they meet sweet; a sugar-salt rim halos this rocks glass, and it serves as a refreshing surprise. As for the margarita itself, the bar adds a touch of agave to its Centinela Clasico tequila, triple sec and lime, a flourish that doesn't so much candify this cocktail as it does smooth it out, making it easy to gulp and follow with a second round.
6. Hefe's Tacos and Tequila
246 Main Street, Longmont
The Rocks Margarita at this tricked-out Longmont cantina is a mix of Zarco tequila, fresh squeezed lime juice and simple syrup. We've already mentioned our love for Tommy's-style quaffers, and that applies here: This is one of the simplest cocktails on this list, and it's also one of the easiest-drinking. Hefe's spices up the deal by giving its drink an unusual rim, blending sugar, salt, dried chile and cumin, adding subtle heat to the flavor profile without overwhelming the balance. Get this margarita by the $4 glass or the $15 pitcher.
Keep reading for six more delicious house margaritas...
7. La Fogata
5670 East Evans Avenue
"I know, it's pink!" cries the bartender as she places a cactus glass of the house margarita before us. She's seen our raised eyebrow, our glance at the menu, our momentary attempt to remember whether we accidentally said "paloma" when we meant "margarita." The rosy hue comes from La Fogata's housemade sweet-and-sour mix, built from a blend of juices, one of which is cranberry. We've already hinted that we can be insufferable purists about classic cocktails like the margarita, but we'll forgive La Fogata its innovation and even embrace it: It gives this drink, which also contains El Charro reposado tequila and triple sec, a mild acidity that's compelling and addictive.
8. La Loma
We feared change might befall La Loma when it moved from its Jefferson Park home to a smaller, darker residence downtown, but our fears were allayed from the first sip of the restaurant's iconic margarita, which still comes in a variety of sizes, from small to fishbowl-large. The drink comprises a simple mix of tequila, triple sec and a house blend of citrus. While you can order it frozen or pumped with other fruit, we like it best the traditional way — on the rocks with salt.
1575 Boulder Street
If you prefer the tart, orange-tinged sipper that only a coin-style margarita can provide, Lola makes a list of cocktails to work your way through. Start with the Silver Coin, Lola's house margarita, which blends Herradura silver tequila, Patron Citronge triple sec and lime into a drink with notes that are floral and acidic. During happy hour, when Lola's patio fills with patrons, you can get this margarita for just $5.
10. Los Chingones
2634 Larimer Street
In warmer weather, the well-lubricated and slightly raucous crowd at the RiNo outpost of Los Chingones spills forth from the moodily lit bar and onto the restaurant's Larimer-facing patio. If you're not drawn to such a scene, it's still worth fighting through the throng for the Los Chingones's Los Marg, a sweet-tart blend of Exotico Blanco tequila and a housemade sweet-and-sour mix, just the thing for a long night (or afternoon) of people-watching in this busy neighborhood. For $2 more, you can turn this sucker coin-style, with a more traditional mix of tequila, Citronage (Patron's orange liqueur), agave and lime. You could also make it skinny, with just tequila and lime, but we've no idea why you'd want to do that.
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11. North County
94 Rampart Way
Billy's Inn has long provided great margaritas for its Berkeley neighbors, so we're happy to report that its younger Lowry sibling, North County, is carrying on that formidable legacy. This lively, colorful Baja-style cantina serves The Original in a miniature shaker, from which pours a blend of Agave Exotico reposado tequila, triple sec and lime-agave sweet and sour, made fresh in-house. Ideally balanced between sweet and tart and eminently drinkable, this cocktail is likely the most crowd-pleasing on this list — which is lucky, because North County seems to always play host to thirsty masses.
12. Que Bueno Suerte
1518 South Pearl Street
Orange Curaçao replaces triple sec in the namesake margarita at Que Bueno Suerte, and it dials up the floral orange note so that it becomes a nice, nuanced punctuation to the tart blend of Suerte Plata tequila, lime and agave. We'll also give the Curaçao credit for lending this drink its lingering finish, encouraging us to savor it more than other versions on this list. That effect was enhanced by the restaurant's inspired crowning touch: It works zippy lime zest into the salt on the rim.