It's spring in Alaska and most of you are thinking of camping, fishing, hiking and biking. Me? I'm thinking of cocktails: icy, bright, citrusy cocktails. Don't judge.
Among my favorite warm-weather quenchers is a classic margarita. A well-executed margarita is an intriguingly duplicitous concoction: sweet yet tart, frivolous yet strong, pretty yet formidable. It's a frilly dress being worn by a slightly dangerous woman.
To usher in the season, I decided to embark on a little margarita "research" so you won't have to. You're welcome.
A quick word about my method. First, my selection of margaritas was based on Facebook crowdsourcing. Imagine my surprise (not!) to learn that my Facebook friends are both knowledgeable and passionate about the subject of margaritas. Some were even willing to offer their assistance in my research. Martyrs one and all.
Second, I tried to stay consistent by ordering a classic margarita -- on the rocks with salt -- at each establishment in order to keep the judging fair. If a bar offered up a specialty, something exotic, high-end or just plain irresistible, I ordered that, too. And here are my (hic) results.
Pancho's Villa is vintage Mexican eatery crossed with vintage Spenard. Dark, cozy and chock-full of Mexican tchotchkes, Christmas tinsel and Corona signs, this is a comforting place for a drink. The house margarita ($6.50) is a pretty standard execution of the classic. No muddled jalapenos, no herb-infused syrups, just the basics. But I had a revelatory moment while sipping this drink: I like bottom-shelf tequila. And this drink had a pretty healthy quantity of it. The musty, faintly metallic flavor of the tequila gets deeper as you sip toward the bottom, and the last sip packed a flavorful punch. Bonus points for free chips at the bar and for the "senor" and "senorita" indicators on the bathroom doors. (Score: 7)
By contrast, Ginger is a rather posh place to sip an after-work margarita. No Christmas tinsel here and slim chance of a mariachi band appearing. Their house margarita with Dobel tequila and Cointreau is reflective of this restraint. It's a beautifully balanced drink, light and refreshing with a subdued sweetness that allows the tequila flavor to come through. Bonus points for the happy hour menu, which offers an abbreviated version of this drink for a mere $5; the regular size is $11. (Score: 9)
Next, I ordered the Chupacabra ($10.50), a variation on a margarita with lemon, grapefruit, agave and, delightfully, muddled jalapenos. This drink is not as aggressive as it sounds. The flavors are harmonious and the jalapeno flavor is just a subtle undercurrent, not a tongue-punishing presence or one that kills the other flavors in the glass. This is a drink I would return to again. (Score: 9)
I've always been a fan of the cocktails at this Spenard favorite, so I was a bit disappointed by their house margarita ($8). The mix is mild -- bland even -- and leans toward the sweet. I was missing the limey zip that I want in a good margarita mix. Also, the tequila flavor was a bit … faint. This is a tall drink, served in a pint glass, which may be why the ratio is off. A stronger tequila taste would have enlivened this drink considerably. (Score: 6)
Several friends put their vote in for the aptly named Las Margaritas in South Anchorage. This is a nice bar (full of regulars) in a traditional restaurant setting, and the Herradura margarita ($9.95) -- while not exactly groundbreaking -- was, thankfully, not overly sweet. Extra points for the festive, piped-in mariachi music. "Cielito Lindo" (otherwise known as the ai-yi-yi-yi song) was playing as I walked in. I kid you not. (Score: 7)
The newest player on this list, Tequila 61 (billed as a Mexican "gastropub") is a chic, urban approach to Mexican cuisine. It's one of the more thoughtfully designed restaurants I've seen in Anchorage, and it has a fresh and playful feel. And the margaritas. Oh, the margaritas.
I began with the margarita classica ($12). This is a tequila drink with mixers. Not the other way around. Assertive yet refined, the Blue Agave tequila is the star of this light and refreshing drink. A paper-thin, dried lime slice floats on top of the drink. I fished mine out, dragged it lightly through salt on the glass's rim and imagined eating a whole plate of sour, salty, chewy limes. Despite my lime-related shenanigans, I felt like a grown-up drinking this high-octane beverage. (Score: 10)
Next, I ordered the spicy margarita ($14). A refreshing mix of earthy, cool cucumber and elderberry is enlivened with a subtle hit of serrano pepper. It's an unusual drink and not what I think of when I think of a margarita. But it was an exciting combination and one I will return to with pleasure. (Score: 9)
Bear Tooth Grill
The Bear Tooth boasts a full page of margarita options, and my husband and I spent a businesslike hour or two working our way through four of them. I know, my job is hard. I began with the house deluxe margarita ($8) and was not exactly disappointed, but somehow uninspired. I was looking for more lime. Only afterward did I remember that a friend recommended the "skinny" version of this drink, which, as I understand it, uses fresh lime juice instead of the bottled, sweetened kind. Mea culpa. I'll know better next time. (Score: 7)
But where the classic failed, the Spenard Rita ($9) succeeded in spades. This variation incorporates Chugach Session beer along with tequila, fresh lime and a rim of lime chili salt. Here was the lime I had been looking for. This drink was refreshing, bright and heady. And the spicy, limey salted rim was irresistible. I sipped in circles so each sip had a fresh hit of this addictive garnish. And when the drink was gone, I used my pinky. This drink is a new favorite. (Score: 10)
My husband and I disagreed about the prickly pear margarita ($7). While he was impressed with this admittedly beautiful, deep pink affair, I found it too delicate and floral for my tastes. I would, however, like a bedspread in just that color. (Score: 6)
Lastly, we tried the Hipster margarita ($9), which was another winner. Made with aperol (a bitter orange and rhubarb liqueur), agave nectar, lime, orange, orange bitters and thyme, this was a complicated and subtle concoction. On paper, it sounds like too much. But on the tongue, it wasn't. The ingredients are well integrated, well balanced and make flavorful sense. This was a thoughtful drink despite the tongue-in-cheek name. (Score: 8)
Being a food (and drink) writer may seem like the perfect job, but it has its drawbacks. For example, not everyone takes your job seriously. I recently had to change plans with a friend due to a work conflict. After I texted him my excuses, there was a pause before he texted back: "Um… Your job is tasting margaritas."
I know. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.