Ten years ago — maybe even five years in Happy Hour time — compiling the 5 Best Margaritas in L.A. would have been a syrupy lime-mix task. Now we're awash in so many small-batch tequilas and fresh-squeezed lime promises on cocktail menus that the idea of a $100 margarita is somehow (?) not terribly shocking. Much as we wanted to include some of our favorite places for Mexican eats and old-fashioned good times (any of Guelaguetza's outposts, El Carmen in West Hollywood, Lares in Santa Monica, we could go on), imbibing-wise, the drinks at our regular haunts are more like those side orders of rice — not nearly as good on their own as they are with heaps of spicy food alongside.
On the flipside, while we think today's trendy pomegranate-mango and cucumber-muddled margarita variations can be great tequila-based cocktails if the right bartender is involved, to us they're tequila-based cocktails, not margaritas, much as anyone behind the bar will try to convince us otherwise (see our #2 pick). Ah, semantics. And yes, we realize our old-school Texas margarita authenticity stance makes it even more hilariously ironic that our favorite “classic” margaritas today are centered in L.A.'s cocktail alley, that corridor of downtown where $12 cocktails are mixed by suspender-clad hipsters in bars that could double as Boardwalk Empire sets. Ah, the glory days of average — but affordable — $6 margaritas served up with free chips, salsa and plenty of dive-bar sass.
5. Ortega 120:
If you're a margarita purist like us, it's wise to skip the sunny pomegranate-ginger and other beachside-inspired margarita combos at Ortega 120 and go straight for the classic house margarita. This is the sort of margarita you can still order by the pitcher, a rarity among today's carefully layered fresh lime juice cocktail set, more so as this pitcher is refreshingly sweet and sour mix-free. 1814 S. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach, (310) 792-4120.
4. Yxta Cocina Mexicana:
The quality of cocktails downtown has set the citywide bar for the rest of the L.A.-area, and margaritas are no exception. Consider Yxta, the sister restaurant to the 1960s-strong El Arco Iris in Highland Park. The latter serves up perfectly acceptable margaritas, Yxta makes much better ones. Particularly the Cadillac margarita (reposado tequila and Grand Marnier), the 1980s definition of “top shelf” that despite all of the añejo and housemade orange liqueur talk today is still pretty darn great weekend kick-starting fuel. 601 S. Central Ave., downtown, (213) 596-5579.
Turn the page for #3, etc…
3. Red O:
You'll pay for Rick Bayless' margarita at Red O — $14, and that's just the straight-up classic. But you can taste the thoughtful lime juice-tequila-liqueur balance here. And sure, there's plenty of creative play in variations like La Dama (pictured above; with serrano chiles, mango grenadine, lime juice and pomegranate liqueur in lieu of orange), should that be your Happy Hour calling. But (no surprise by now) we prefer to peruse the impressive tequila menu and build our own reposado and lime juice concoctions — well, at least on those nights when the boss is paying. 8155 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (323) 655-5009.
2. Las Perlas:
The mezcals may justifiably be the main draw at Las Perlas, but we go back for that house Las Perlas margarita, sweetened with agave nectar and Royal Combier, one of our favorite orange liqueurs for its depth. At $10, the margarita also happens to be a decent cocktail-era deal, more so at happy hour — at least compared to its fancy tequila and mezcal cocktail colleagues. [Note: Adding to the current L.A. what's-in-a-margarita-name fun, when we sent our estimable photographer to snap a pic of the Las Perlas house margarita, it was no longer on the menu. But the bartender assured her she could still order it — and then convinced her she really didn't want a plain old margarita (Who would, these days?) but an inspired “Spiced Daisy” version with cucumber, chili morita and cilantro, photo above. Was it a great cocktail? Sure. But some days we simply want a darn good margarita (or martini, or Bloody Mary), no creative muddling required.] 107 E. Sixth St., downtown, (213) 988-8355.
Turn the page for our #1 pick…
1. Border Grill:
Long before mixologists became part of L.A.'s cocktail lexicon, you could always, and still can, rely on Border Grill's bartenders to make a great fresh lime juice-tinged classic margarita in various tequila and orange liqueur forms (the notable exception being Happy Hour, the one time we've been disappointed by watered-down versions here). It's also the sort of place where for years, traditional Jalisco standouts like tequila with sangrita (a spicy-tart chaser made from various juices and chiles; get the recipe here) cocktails have been equally at home. Such long-standing consistency and quality may be the antithesis of L.A.'s current trendy cocktail Twitterverse, but for that, Border Grill, we'd like to thank you. And buy you a margarita. 1445 Fourth St., Santa Monica. (310) 451-1655; 445 S. Figueroa St., downtown. (213) 486-5171.
Daina Beth Solomon contributed to this report.
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