The Many Margaritas of Mexico City

If you are in Mexico City, sooner or later you will have a Margarita. This is the city of Tequila Tuesdays and Jueves de Mezcales. This is the city of the all-day bender, of the perennial happy hour. This, too, is Hangover City, and hangovers, it is known, require early-morning Margaritas. You may have your Margarita at some impossible-to-get table at Pujol, or in the bar upstairs in ultraposh Rosetta; you may have it by the gallon at abject street bars for less than 100 pesos; or you may have it in a can labeled El Jimador New Mix, out of the fridge at iconic Mexican grocery store Oxxo. (It’s $1 and a guaranteed headache.)

But wait, what is a Margarita? This is what we think we know: A Margarita is an alcoholic drink that contains tequila, lime juice, triple sec or another orange liqueur or sweetener and ice. But in today’s Mexico City, as soon as you raise your rocks glass, or red plastic cup or precious coupe, certainties fade away. “What then is time?” Augustine is reported to have written. “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

Chilango reality is fluent, unstable. So, too, is the Margarita. It is a game of shifting mirrors, a Lego set of movable parts. ¿De qué tiene Margaritas? (“What kind of Margaritas do you have?”) is a common question at any bar. Bartenders may answer with a tamarind Margarita, chamoy Margarita or a hibiscus Margarita. Consider the Margarita at the upscale Quintonil in Polanco: It comes frozen in a Martini glass, aromatic with clove and mint, sweetened with sugar and just a little Controy (effectively Mexican Cointreau), infused with purple basil. Is it a Margarita? In Mexico City, as in the United States, the boundaries of the drink are flexed to the point of rupture. But it is not those Margaritas that make the drink’s essence a matter of philosophical questioning. It’s the subtle ways in which the drink shape-shifts in the city’s bars and cantinas that make it an enigma.

In Mexico City the boundaries of the Margarita are flexed to the point of rupture.

Just behind the National Cathedral, in the historic center of this immense city, there is a small marisquería: Itacate del Mar. It is a blue terrazzo cubicle with a couple of tall tables inside, and some seats on the sidewalk, looking indiscreetly at the lower back of the cathedral. There are at least three Margaritas on the menu there: the Margarita, the Margarita Dragones (a Margarita scaled up with tequila Dragones) and the Margarita mezcal, which includes a mix of citrus juices—orange, lime, pink grapefruit—sweetened with agave honey and served on the rocks in an Old-Fashioned glass rimmed with powdered chile. It’s subtle, balanced between sweetness, acidity, bitterness. Let’s not forget that tequila and mezcal are radically different beverages. One may be sharp, the other round; one may remind you of baked agave, the other of fermented pineapple. One may add a punch in the gut, the other a gloved slap to the face. The Margarita mezcal is the latter.

A bartender pours a Margarita at Itacate del Mar, where there are at least three versions of the drink on the menu.

The city is also full of Margaritas for the classically trained, hewing only to the Margarita’s core ingredients, and yet each is idiosyncratic in the subtlest of ways—from the titanic por litro Margaritas at the chelerías on Calle Regina, to the illicit Margaritas served in plastic cups out of supermarket carts on the street in the Tepito neighborhood.

Ask around and Chilangxs will probably tell you that the best classic Margaritas (and, by the way, the best dry Martinis) are served at San Ángel Inn, in the western part of the San Ángel neighborhood. The restaurant used to be the Hacienda de los Goicoechea. It was built in the year of the Indigenous rebellion of 1692. Since then, it has housed the Spanish embassy; was headquarters for the battle of Chapultepec in 1847; was, as the name suggests, an inn; and, since the 1960s, has operated as a restaurant.

We’ll get to the Margaritas in a minute, but first: San Ángel Inn’s patio is one of Mexico City’s most beautiful spaces. This is a garden of synesthetic qualities: Flowers look like butterflies, birds seem to grow from the trees, trees seem to have been born out of a small bird’s nest. It is crowded with low tables where one is expected to order Margaritas while waiting for a table inside. These are extremely cold Margaritas, made only with reposado tequila, lime juice and triple sec. They arrive at the table in small metal flasks kept in copper buckets of ice. The waiter will pour them a little at a time into Martini glasses rimmed with salt, with a small twist of lime at the bottom. This Margarita is leisurely, elegant.

Bar Isabel is a cantina as old-school as they come.

“We can make a banana Margarita, if you want it,” a bartender at the minuscule Bar Isabel told me the other day. “But I’d rather serve you a real Margarita.” Tequila, lime, Controy, salt, a little ice and nothing else. Bar Isabel is a cantina as old-school as they come in Mexico City. Even the large, curved hurricane glasses look as if they’ve been here since the ’70s. They probably have. (Alternatively, you can ask for a champagne coupe, or copa champañera, for your Margarita. Just don’t ask for mezcal; they don’t serve that here.) Bar Isabel is a beautiful, terrifying mix of pale yellow walls, dark green tabletops, black stools and hot dog–pink floors, and its patrons have been coming here for decades for the no-nonsense drinks. Its Margarita is the sort that will remind you of the days before the cocktail renaissance.

Cantina Covadonga makes traditional margaritas for a boho crowd.

Cantina Covadonga, just a 12-minute ride on the pink train (Línea 1) from Bar Isabel, is similarly stuck in time, even if they cater to a far younger, far noisier crowd. (Sometimes there’s even a DJ at the back.) Covadonga’s Margarita is also classically constructed, but it arrives in a large Martini glass stuffed with crushed ice, alongside a small plate of lime quarters. It’s a traditional Margarita but for a boho crowd, a gateway to classic mixology. Ask for a set of dominoes at Covadonga and kill off an afternoon.

After all, a Margarita is a drink by which to get drunk. Unlike a single glass of wine, or a Scotch on the rocks, in a Margarita it’s the buzz we are after. We accept and grow fond of its taste because of the emotional stirring of its effects. (Ask anyone in Cabo San Lucas or Cancún.) But there’s also the form of the Margarita. Agave spirit, acid, sweetener. A Margarita is compact, like a sonnet. It accepts change but no rebuttals. It fosters variation but within a very specific range. It is also a disposition, a mood. If you think about it, a Margarita is more an idea than a cocktail. I take that back: It is less an idea than an ideal, Platonic at its core. And we, mere humans in this world of shifting mirrors, are ever in pursuit of it.

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