Made from the distilled sap of agave, a cactus the Aztecs held sacred, tequila gained popularity north of the border in a series of waves, starting with the Mexican movie boom of the forties and the postwar cocktail craze of the fifties. It is perhaps best loved as the driving ingredient in the margarita. In ’42, according to legend, a bartender named Pancho Morales got a drink order he didn’t recognized and made up something, a tasty concoction involving tequila, ice, fruit juice and Cointreau. His bluff went over better than he expected. Pancho had accidentally engineered one of the great summer cocktails.
Yes, it’s a hit with aging sorority girls at Bon Jovi karaoke night who want to get housed but also want smoothies. But some saucehounds mock the margarita without ever having enjoyed a real one. If your tequila isn’t 100-percent real agave (as many lower-shelf bottles are not), it’s rum. If it’s not from the Mexican state of Jalisco, it’s technically mezcal, not tequila. If it ain’t real scorpion honey in your glass, you’re not getting that extra kick that kept the Aztecs and Spaniards at each other’s throats for so many years. And let’s not mention those blasphemous “blended” slushy deals. Rocks and salt, period.
Chicago isn’t a margarita-intensive berg. But it’s gotten a tad easier to enjoy crème de cacti here, now that the reigning scenester-approved brunch joint Big Star (1531 North Damen—word to Chris Bell) serves both “classic” and trademark house margaritas, the latter made with unaged white tequila and San Luis Mezcal. Salud (1471 West Milwaukee) is still the neighborhood leader and regional agave-snob HQ—it sponsors tastings and will gladly spoil you for all sports-bar swill. Over in the Gold Coast, Blue Agave (1 West Maple) sells straight-up margaritas and fanciful variations such as the “tequila martini,” featuring jalapeño-stuffed olives—after all, the best tequila is useless without a sense of humor. Many area Mexican restaurants can mix a decent marg, too, so let the hunt, and the long patio rap sessions, commence. For a few fleeting moments in summer, we’re all Californians. (Emerson Dameron)