Mug Shots: Local Bars Serve Margaritas To Fit Every Taste

Posted May 7, 2008 at 5:08pm

As the temperature in D.C. rises to that of an inferno this summer and appropriations season drags on, perhaps the one thing that will be able to cool Washingtonians off and keep them relaxed is a margarita. Be it frozen or on the rocks, traditional or strawberry, this city has a drink for everyone. But with all the Mexican restaurants in town, how does one know where to go? Mug Shots took on the task of tasting a bevy of frozen

beverages to find a few choice margaritas.

Hill Favorites

Tortilla Coast (400 First St. SE) has long been a favorite on the House side. The bar was recently awarded “Best Rocks Margarita in D.C.” and “Best Rocks Margarita in the Metro Area” by an On Tap reader’s poll. While these awards are for margaritas on the rocks, the frozen drinks are not to be missed at this Capitol Hill staple. With margaritas coming in small ($5.50) and large ($7) sizes or by the pitcher ($15.95), this hot spot can suit everyone’s needs.

[IMGCAP(1)]“Our margaritas are handmade in small batches, ensuring quality and freshness,” bar manager Bill Anderson wrote in an e-mail. “Order a ‘top shelf’ margarita and watch one of our expert bartenders make your drink per your specifications right in front of you!”

The frozen strawberry margarita, made with fresh fruit, is wonderfully sweet, though often too thick to drink through a straw at first. The restaurant is perhaps best known for “The Swirl,” a layering of frozen strawberry and regular margaritas.

The budget-conscious drinker will especially enjoy Tortilla Coast, as it offers inexpensive food to complement the cocktails. Tuesday nights feature 50-cent tacos, and the restaurant offers free and unlimited chips and salsa every night.

Senate-side staffers are just a hop, skip and jump away from another longtime favorite, La Loma (316 Massachusetts Ave. NE). This option is especially appealing because of its large outdoor patio. Margaritas are served in glasses with green cactus stems and salted rims. Beware: While the drinks are tasty, they are also extremely potent. With friendly waiters who are happy to point patrons to their favorite drinks and mariachi music playing, it’s the perfect place to unwind after a lengthy markup or vote-a-rama.

A regular margarita ($ 5.25) on the rocks is a tasty treat, though it’s heavy on that intoxicating tequila taste. The frozen strawberry margarita ($5.95) is a beautiful ruby color and tastes sweeter, masking the alcohol. Margaritas are also available by the pitcher ($22.95) and half-pitcher ($12.95).

If you like your bars to be a bit cheesy and your margaritas to be unique, Banana Cafe and Piano Bar (500 Eighth St. SE) should be at the top of your list. This Barracks Row establishment offers a wide variety of cocktails served at a bar decorated with neon lights, and the service is accompanied by a man playing classics on a keyboard in the corner. The cozy piano bar is on the second floor of this Cuban/Mexican restaurant, which has a packed dining area on the first.

The bar offers a namesake beverage, the banana margarita ($6.75), that is different from any of the other drinks Mug Shots tried. Made in a blender with a whole banana, banana rum and tequila, this drink tastes like a watered-down, alcoholic smoothie. The budget-minded drinker should note that margaritas are $2 off after 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Farther Away, But Worth the Trip

For those who are willing to venture a bit off the Hill, Oyamel (401 Seventh St. NW) in Penn Quarter offers Mug Shot’s favorite margarita. The eponymous drink ($11), served in a short glass without ice, is sweet and citrusy without a strong tequila taste.

The unique aspect of this margarita is the salt air that is sprayed atop the yellow beverage. While many margaritas have salted rims, this one has a foam on top that allows a salty taste with each sip. Patrons can watch the bartender create the salt air with a hand mixer right before their eyes.

Bar manager Steve Fowler said the secret to the drink is the fresh lime juice and high-quality tequila. The lime juice is “squeezed in house every morning,” he said. “We have one person who works out of the kitchen all day. So it’s a full-time job for someone.”

Fowler said the restaurant will sell anywhere from 400 to 500 margaritas on any given Friday or Saturday night. Unfortunately, Oyamel has limited space with a bar that seats no more than 20 people at a time. It’s hard to get a stool, even late on a Saturday afternoon. And it can be difficult to get the bartender’s attention, though after you do flag him down, he is more than willing to steer customers toward the perfect beverage, advising on different flavors and how they complement each other.

There are plans to expand the bar, Fowler said, but he was uncertain as to when that will happen.

Rosa Mexicana (575 Seventh St. NW) has three things going for it: a large bar that can accommodate groups, exceptional guacamole and delicious margaritas. The frozen pomegranate margarita ($9) is especially refreshing after traipsing through Chinatown in 80- degree weather. A frosty combination of pomegranate juice, tequila blanco and lime juice, with a salted rim, the drink is not too sweet and has a nice tequila aftertaste. If pomegranate isn’t your thing, Rosa Mexicana also offers a classic margarita ($9), blending Milagro 100 percent blue agave silver tequila, triple sec and fresh lime.

While the margaritas were excellent at Rosa Mexicana, the guacamole stole the show. Served for two, it is mildly spiced with large chunks of avocados swimming in a big black bowl –– a perfect accompaniment for any margarita.

Finally, no review of margarita spots in Washington would be complete without a mention of Lauriol Plaza (1835 18th St. NW). Although this D.C. institution was the last stop on Mug Shots’ margarita tour, it did not disappoint. Offering affordable margaritas ($5.95), a rooftop bar and outdoor seating, Lauriol Plaza is ideal for those who want to feel the sun on their skin as they sip a cocktail.

Margaritas are available by the glass, half-pitcher or pitcher, and much like Tortilla Coast, Lauriol Plaza offers a swirled drink. The margarita itself wasn’t all that different from others we tried, though it did have an almost lemonade-like taste that made it go down much smoother. Readers should also be aware that the restaurant — like many of the bars on our list, gets very crowded on a nice night. So if you plan to get a table and order dinner, be ready to get cozy with the other patrons as you sip your drink.