Margaritas were a serious weak point when I first wrote about El Real Tex-Mex restaurant last year, shortly after it was opened by the high-profile brain trust of chef Bryan Caswell, partner Bill Floyd and cookbook author Robb Walsh. "So not right," I called both the frozen and rocks versions, which struck me as overly sweet and sometimes afflicted by chemical off-tastes.
Those margaritas kind of ruined the ritual Tex-Mex fun that we Texans tend to view as our birthright.
So I was delighted this week to find that El Real has a new build-your-own-margarita program that lets you check off your preferences on a list. For $8.95 you can end up with a cocktail that actually does approach, if not nail, your "Perfect Margarita" ideal.
You can tick off the tequila you want from an assortment of seven blancos and golds. You can choose among Triple Sec, Cointreau or Grand Marnier orange liqueurs, or check off "Skinny" style, with none at all.
You can specify simple syrup, agave nectar or no sweetener whatsoever. How about the juice? Check fresh lime, fresh orange or a combo. You can pick a salted, sugared or clean rim on your glass. Have the results on the rocks, or shaken with ice and served straight up.
When bartender Samantha handed over my drink in an elegant Nick-and-Nora cocktail glass, rim edged in salt, it really was close to what I might have made for myself at home.
I'm a big believer in the straight-up style, which preserves the balance of flavors better. And I want a decent 100% agave tequila that's not overly industrialized like many of the big brands, so I picked Espolon Silver, the same blanco tequila that Anvil's agave guru Bobby Heugel picked when he upgraded the cocktail menu at the original Ninfa's on Navigation.
Yes, I might have liked a few more traditionally made blanco tequilas to choose from, such as Siete Leguas, Tequila Ocho or Siembra Azul. (I think aged tequilas are wasted in a margarita.) Perhaps even a mescal or two. I would gladly have paid a premium for any of them.
But the Espolon shone through in the mix of fresh lime juice and Cointreau, mixed in a 1:1:3/4 ratio so that the drink retained a nice tart citrus edge, which matters to me.
As an experiment (and because I liked my first build-your-own so much), I ordered another with Triple Sec instead of smoother, rounder Cointreau. Cheap Mexican Triple Sec is a hallowed tradition for my friends who live along the border, and back in the days before liquids were banned from airplane cabins, I toted many a bottle back from excursions to Juarez, Laredo, Ciudad Acuna and Matamoros. The unrefined flavor still reminds me of the margaritas of my youth.
That's exactly what it did in my second margarita at El Real. The first one, made with Cointreau, tasted more elegant, more adult. The one made with Triple Sec was a bit of obstreperous fun. I loved both cocktails in different ways.
If you're the type of drinker who routinely negotiates with bartenders to get the kind of customized margarita you prefer, El Real's checklist may strike you as superfluous. I can't agree. The check-off-the-options format puts every single guest in the driver's seat, even those who shrink from the wheedling, favor-begging and uncertainty negotiating with restaurant bartenders often seems to entail. And it all but guarantees uniform results that match your requests.
Restaurant bar programs have improved in Houston in recent years, but most Mexican restaurants in town (with the notable exception of Hugo's) haven't caught the wave yet. Even at Ninfa's on Navigation, with its Heugel-influenced tequila program and a pick-your-own component, I feel like I'm engaged in a delicate transaction that might be bugging the busy bartenders, and that might or might not work out exactly the way I'd like.
By formalizing the build-your-own arrangement, El Real empowers the customer--even the retiring ones. Of course, the format can backfire, too, because it requires a certain degree of knowledge or vision to work properly.
At El Real, I heard the sad tale of a customer who ordered her margarita made with orange juice, Grand Marnier, a gold tequila and a sugared rim. She hated the results. Well, yeah.
I, on the other hand, was thrilled. It's not often I see a restaurant go from the bottom of the margarita heap to the top tier virtually overnight.
Now there's a cocktail worthy of El Real's wonderful beef fajita nachos, which are some of my favorites in town. I consider it a welcome miracle, and I hope the build-your-own idea catches on elsewhere in town.
(El Real Tex-Mex Cafe, 1201 Westheimer Rd., 713-524-1201. Monday — Wednesday 11 a.m. —10 p.m.; Thursday 11 a.m. — 11 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 11 a.m. — Midnight; Sunday 10 a.m. — 10 p.m.)