The Best Margaritas in Minnesota

I reviewed the new Cocina del Barrio in Edina in the April Minnesota Monthly–the review’s not yet online, but the short of it was that it’s a technically excellent restaurant with some nice, different options from the other more street-food oriented Barrios.

Some good things: A red pork tamale was savory and lush with spicy, silky meat, and lively and melodic through its crowning herb salad of mint and radish. The shrimp ceviche with green olives and mangoes was a remarkable exercise in taking wildly contrasting flavors and playing them so they were perfectly balanced against one another—the sweet and salt, the fresh and hot like so many evenly weighted chips holding the platforms of a scale in perfect stasis.

Large main entrees, an innovation from the small-plate other Barrios, were fantastic: A chimichurri-sauced chicken quarter was so tender it tasted poached, but the herbal sauce gave it zing and purpose; an expertly seared piece of rib-eye was presented on a complicated lime-dressed herb and vegetable salad, and looked just like the thing a private chef would make you if you were a mogul eating the finest things life has to offer, but were also on a diet.

In retrospect, though, all the Barrios remain in my mind something like lighthouses: Up at the top a shining beacon, and how nice that something holds it up. That beacon, of course, is the margaritas. The fresh juice, oh-so-creative margaritas. Which led my mind to wandering: If one has had it up to here with this fitful, on-again, snow-again spring, if one is really just dying to get out in the living world and have a great margarita, where are the best? Please note for the purposes of this story that I’m going to define margarita loosely–I’m not in a puritanical mood. If it’s got tequila and stuff, it’s in the running. And if you want to use this dance-card for your entire summer, call me.

1. Guerro at Barrio
Made with Cazadores Reposado Tequila, Cointreau, and a house made grapefruit soda. The tequila for this is aged in oak, which adds a nice smokiness to the zesty grapefruit soda. It’s a great first Margarita of spring, because it’s a gulper. That means you can’t drink it, you must gulp it!

2. Diego Vega at the Inn, in downtown Minneapolis
Made with Mezcal. What’s that? Tequila is made with one species of agave, blue agave, while Mezcal is made with other species, kind of like the difference between different grape varietals, say Riesling wine and a white Bordeaux. There are 300 odd varieties of agave in the world, for those keeping track at home. So, the Diego Vega: Mezcal, fresh blackberries, white balsamic vinegar (for a little bite), agave syrup (for a little sweetness), and ginger beer for fizz—it’s sort of deconstructed, reconstructed, fun.

3. La Paloma, at the Bradstreet Craftshouse. (Or really any of the three offerings at Bradstreet Craftshouse!)
Made with Lunazul, a single estate tequila, and simply lime juice and fresh grapefruit juice, the Paloma is a purist’s joy. But I also like the crazy green one made with green chartreuse and mint. It’s sort of very old tasting—like 19th century herbal-medicinal, but in a good way. Please note that Bradstreet also has an after-work happy hour that lots of foodie types think is the best in downtown Minneapolis. It goes from 5 to 7 p.m., and has super-fancy cocktails for six dollars–and one cent—to help you remember the address, 601 Hennepin, inside the 601 Graves.

4. Mayan Margarita at Masa
This upscale Mexican place has half a dozen excellent margaritas, but I really like the Mayan one, made with honey from a native morning glory that I can’t really pronounce, xtabentun, (sh-tah-ben-TOON). It’s also got fresh lime juice, and anise in it—making it flowery, fragrant, and tropical without being sweet.

5. Randy Macho, at Smalley’s in Stillwater
Smalley’s blood orange and ancho pepper Margarita has the perfect blend of sweet and spicy, bitter and light. It’s one of those drinks that starts seeming super-saturated, and ends leaving you super-satisfied.

There’s my list. What’s on yours?