2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

The Margarita Belongs to San Diego

The Margarita Belongs to San Diego

I blame Jimmy Buffett. It wasn’t just that “Margaritaville” stole San Diego’s signature drink. No, his whole Yokel In Paradise schtick encouraged Midwesterners and New Yawkahs to come west and intrude on our beach life. Twenty degrees and the hockey game’s on, he sings of the snowbound bar patrons in “Boat Drinks,” calling out for their tropical libations, the magic potions in big goblets with little bamboo umbrellas that will take them to warmer climes. Nobody cares, they’re all way too far gone.

These people escaped from that song and found me here. I’m in Encinitas, California, the surfing epicenter of San Diego county, sitting at El Callejon restaurant’s small but tequila-dense bar. The restaurant’s days of being a quiet, locals-only spot have long since passed, but they still serve the best margarita I’ve ever had, even though the ambiance that makes it taste even better can only be found mid-week during the offseason. I can picture the waves rolling in just across the street at Moonlight Beach, and if it were a quiet day I could hear them; right now it’s 70 degrees and the hockey game’s on and all of these goddamn tourists covered with oil are really, really into it.

And they’re complaining. “This isn’t a margarita,” someone says. “It’s too sour. It’s too strong.”

Jesus. The classic margarita recipe – which is what El Callejon serves – is not sour, but it is pretty strong, a far cry from the syrupy punch served at your local El Torito. 3-2-1: three parts tequila, two parts Cointreau (or Triple Sec if you’re on a budget, or my new version – and I’ve yet to encounter my version in a bar, so I’m claiming it – Patron Citronge liqueur) and one part lime juice. Real lime juice, freshly squeezed, none of that bottled nonsense; it’s a point of pride at El Callejon, one that is lost on the inlanders complaining about the taste. The true margarita is served on the rocks, of course. Churning it up in a blender ruins that balance of salt, tang, the muted honey-like sweetness of the orange liquor and the dry smokiness of the tequila. The true margarita is not a Boat Drink. There are no strawberries or mangoes or Blue Curacao or artificial colors and there’s certainly no corn syrup. A true margarita is a glass of alcohol with a bit of lime juice in it.

And if any American city can claim it as an official drink, it’s San Diego. The locally accepted story goes that the margarita was invented by Tijuana-area restauranteur Carlos “Danny” Herrera in 1938 (according to Smithsonian magazine; in Herrera’s 1992 LA Times obit, the drink was said to have been created “in the late 40’s”). He served one to actress/showgirl Marjorie King who, it seems, was allergic to most spirits save tequila. Since she didn’t like the taste of the straight stuff, Herrera added some Cointreau and lime juice and salt to her shot, and the margarita was born.

I pop into El Callejon every couple of weeks; during the first few months after I’d separated from my wife, and was navigating the treacherous waters of divorce while learning to sail the vessel known as Single Fatherhood (damn you, Buffett; now you’ve got me thinking like you), the margarita reminded me of better times. On days without the kids, I’d go for a surf or a barefoot run on the beach and would have one afterwards to celebrate the small victory of not being a broken person. After I reconnected with a woman from my past, who quickly became an integral part of my future, the margarita ritual became more of an affirmation. It’s a happy drink; after all, it helped our morose “Margaritaville” narrator hang on. Maybe it’s the agave, a fruit born from deserts; the symbolism’s almost too perfect. Maybe it’s that a true margarita is only as complicated as its tequila core.

Whatever it is, on this day this particular margarita has put me in a mood befitting my current place; in a little surf town on the edge of the Pacific, all sorts of possibilities ahead. That same someone complaining about the drink’s strength is now wondering about its color. “It’s not green. Aren’t they supposed to be green?” I laugh and order another.

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