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Liquid Living Magazine

Ten Margaritas With A Twist
Pascale Le Draoulec, 07.18.07, 12:01 AM ET Forbes.net

Texas chef Tim Love beat the mighty Masahuru Morimoto on the Food Network's Iron Chef this spring--and Love credits his victory in large part to the spicy, sophisticated margarita he whipped up on the fly.

The Lonesome Dove chef, who likes to cook with tequila, had brought plenty of Milagro Silver to the competition. When he learned the secret ingredient was "chiles" he dreamed up a perfectly balanced jalapeno cucumber margarita that knocked his rival out of the running.

A margarita scoring points in a culinary competition? Indeed.

In Pictures: Ten Margaritas With A Twist

Make no mistake. Margaritas have become upscale--even gourmet--with big-name toques like Jean-Georges Vongerichten slipping behind the bar to create their own renditions of this classic sweet-and-sour cocktail.

Fantastic Flavors

For the 2004 opening of Spice Market in New York City , Vongerichten created the popular ginger margarita made with tangy ginger-lime simple syrup. At his new restaurant Lagoon in Bora Bora , he's added a Thai-chile kick to the same cocktail, with equal success.

What's driving this trend, says Love, is a newfound appreciation--and availability--of premium tequilas made from 100% agave.

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"As people have become more educated about tequila," he says, "they are demanding better and more interesting margaritas."

He now serves the winning jalapeno margarita at his Lonesome Dove restaurant in Fort Worth , Texas . He's finessed it a bit, adding cooling cucumber to balance the spice.

In many ways, "the margarita has gone the exact same route as Mexican food in this country," says Richard Sandoval, who owns the Modern Mexican restaurant group, including Maya in New York City , San Francisco and Dubai .

"We started out with very basic, humble Tex-Mex. Now we are seeing a much more regional, more refined Mexican cuisine. We've simply brought the level of the margarita up to the level of modern Mexican food."

A perfect example: his sour-sweet tamarind margarita, a top seller at Maya.

Innovative Ingredients

Sandoval says his margarita's basic premise--to achieve the perfect balance between sour and sweet--invites all sorts of tempting deviations. Even south of the border, he's seeing more and more Mexican mixologists experimenting with quirky ingredients like hibiscus and guanabana (custard apple fruit) in their margaritas.

La Esquina, in New York City , now offers a hibiscus rose margarita infused with rose water. Bartender Rogan Holmes says the sweet, aromatic hibiscus provides the perfect yin to the lime's yang tang.

But Sue Torres, chef and owner at Suenos in New York City , says it's all about the tequila.

"There is an amazing variety of tequilas on the market today, from Blanco's to reposados to añejos," she says. "These are quality tequilas that are just crying out to be paired with interesting nectars that will either complement or contrast their distinct flavors."

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Torres, who opens Los Dados in July, also in New York City , says she's been spending more time on the margarita menu than in the kitchen, precisely because these new tequilas, with their respective notes of candied ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, pineapple or even roasted vegetables, "are such a dream to work with."

"I've come up with 20 different margaritas already," she says. "We're probably going to have to scale back."

Like many of the mixologists who supplied recipes for our list of 10 upscale and unusual margaritas, Torres has been playing with creating unique simple syrups to reflect each type of tequila, and she's customizing salt mixtures for rim-dipping. At Los Dados, she'll be serving a vanilla bean margarita with a chile-flecked salt rim.

At Amalia, mixologist Holly Roberts mixes bergamot oil into her simple syrup. Though she would normally reserve an añejo tequila for sipping, she thought the slightly sweet characteristics of a Patron añejo tequila combined well with the exotic oil for a Mediterranean twist on the margarita. Her saffron salt for the rim alone has more ingredients (including orange peel, fennel seeds, chile de arbol, and saffron) than most margaritas on our list.

"There's a tremendous number of ways to play with margaritas in order to update them or to make them more interesting," she says. "Because it's such a classic drink that really resonates with people, they're more willing to try new interpretations."

Maybe so. But can you eat salsa and chips with a bergamot margarita?

"Not at Amalia," says Roberts. "But we'll gladly give you hummus and flatbread."