America's Best Margaritas
“Salt helps to draw out other flavors and balance the tartness of the drink,” explains Peter Vestinos, a Chicago-based cocktail consultant.
America’s best margaritas, recommended by tequila experts and some of the country’s top mixologists, range from spicy to sweet, shaken to frozen. We wanted to toast the classics as well as quirky variations on the standard recipe of tequila, triple sec, and lime juice. What all these margaritas share with Empellón’s is a thoughtful commitment to quality—and complementary—ingredients.
The esteemed margarita at Tommy’s Mexican, a San Francisco institution, substitutes agave nectar (honey water) for triple sec with such success that it’s been replicated by bars across America.
Houston’s Pastry War supplies a bubble tea straw to suck up the whole pomegranate seeds in its frozen margaritas. In New Orleans, Tivoli & Lee draws on local inspiration, adding native hibiscus to its margarita. These versions don’t require limes, an advantage at a time when a lime shortage has been making headlines and raising prices nationwide.
Whether you’re celebrating Cinco de Mayo or just the end of the workweek, fill your glass with one of the finest margaritas north of the border.
Matchbox Margarita, The Matchbox, Chicago
Refined over the years since 1995, the Matchbox margarita consists of Cointreau, reposado tequila, fresh-squeezed lemon and lime, powdered sugar, and egg whites. Powdered sugar is also used to rim the glass instead of salt. The recipe is so popular that nearby Taco Joint added it to the menu. And that’s good news for fans of the drink, as the tiny wedge-shaped bar at The Matchbox fits only 19 stools. The bar also offers margaritas with house-infused apricot tequila and with mango or passion fruit purée.
Pomegranate and Sloe Gin Frozen Margarita, Pastry War, Houston
Other pomegranate margaritas rely on the fruit juice; Bobby Heugel’s consists of whole pomegranate seeds and Plymouth sloe gin (a gin-based liqueur flavored with strawberries). These ingredients are mixed into the house margarita along with the frozen option of your choice: strawberry and balsamic; habanero and mango; or mole and ginger. Bubble tea straws come in handy for sucking up the pomegranate seeds. The drink goes down smoother on weekdays from 4 to 6:30 p.m., when margaritas are $5.
Bark at the Moon, La Puerta, San Diego
La Puerta’s spiciest cocktail features a heart-burning chile pepper mixed with Dos Lunas Reposado, fresh lime, agave nectar, and the special ingredient of muddled serrano. Its fire isn’t for everyone, though; the Whole Lotta Love (made with Azuñia Reposado and agave nectar) is the best selling of the nine available margaritas. But on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the biggest crowd-pleaser is the frozen margarita, only $5.
Salt Air Margarita, Oyamel, Washington, D.C.
Salt air—a foamlike substance made with the powdered emulsifier sucro—crowns the top of Oyamel’s most popular margarita, which also features Milagro Silver, triple sec, and fresh lime. There’s a long list of mezcal and tequilas available to keep you going through a hearty meal of antojitos (“the little dishes from the streets”), papas al mole, and tacos with handmade tortillas inspired from all corners of Mexico.
Modern Margarita, Tivoli & Lee, New Orleans
Even though most of the cocktails at this southern restaurant draw on whiskey, mixologist Kimberly Patton-Bragg’s Modern Margarita has proven to be a top seller. Hibiscus (sourced locally), jalapeño-infused Chinaco blanco, Solerno Blood Orange liqueur, and lime juice are shaken and double strained over rocks. San Pellegrino Pompelmo soda gives a citrusy tang to this boozy refresher. Patton-Bragg—who will mix cocktails on demand—is also partial to the Shake the Devil Off margarita. The cinnamon of Bittermens Hiver Amer balances the sour taste of grapefruit cordial and house-made vanilla over Cabeza tequila.
Tommy's Margarita, Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, San Francisco
Co-owner Julio Bermejo has earned the title of U.S. Ambassador to Tequila for his repeated trips to Jalisco. And all that research has earned a loyal following for this institution (est. 1965), where the signature margarita combines agave nectar, agave tequila, and freshly squeezed lime juice. The recipe has been reproduced by bars across America, including the Regent Cocktail Club in Miami. Tommy’s Mexican also stocks more than 100 reposados—tequilas that have been aged in oak barrels.
Classic Margarita, Mayahuel, New York City
This isn’t the first time Mayahuel—named for the goddess of the agave plant—has made it onto a “best margarita” list. Credit goes to Philip Ward, who makes his Classic with tequila, Cointreau triple sec, and fresh lime juice. Margarita-inspired cocktails include the Señorita, which uses agave nectar and Scotch infused with oranges instead of Cointreau, and the Broxburn, which subs in Drambuie.
La Belleza, Gracias Madre Restaurant, Los Angeles
This vegan Mexican restaurant is just as bold with its cocktails as it is with its cooking. La Belleza is one of Jason Eisner’s creations, a sparkling margarita of tequila blanco, strawberry balsamic shrub, lemon, and rosé wine, hand-carbonated in a perlini (a shaker pressurized with carbon dioxide). Pair it with chef Chandra Gilbert’s gorditas or flautas de camote (rolled tacos filled with sweet potatoes and caramelized onions topped with guacamole and cashew nacho cheese).
Margarita La Condesa, La Condesa, Austin, TX
Pineapple juice, Damiana liqueur, and agave nectar sweeten La Condesa’s classic margarita. For an extra kick, mixologist Nate Wales salts up the rim with lemongrass and cactus. This restaurant in Austin’s trendy Warehouse District features the city’s largest selection of 100 percent blue agave tequila and mezcal.
El Diablo, Lone Star Taco Bar, Boston
The laid-back Lone Star is the kind of place you go to scarf down tacos and wash down Mug-aritas (twice the size of a regular, for only 50 percent more money). But don’t be fooled: the staff take those drinks seriously. Among the selection of artisanal margaritas and tequila-based cocktails, El Diablo stands out for its spicier twist on the traditional margarita: reposado tequila, mezcal, lime, jalapeño, and habanero agave syrup served over ice with a chili-lime salt rim.
Nuestra Margarita, Esquire Tavern, San Antonio, TX
A fixture of San Antonio’s River Walk, The Esquire prides itself on a fine spirits selection and handcrafted cocktails that have garnered the attention of the James Beard Foundation. For the signature margarita, “we use a blend of lowland (Fortaleza Blanco) and highland (Siembra Azul Reposado) tequila,” explains beverage director Houston Eaves. “These are two of the absolute finest tequilas on earth, used with fresh-squeezed Key limes and original French triple sec (Combier).” Don’t just take his word for it; sample one yourself. A dollar of each Nuestra Margarita sold contributes to the Tequila Interchange Project, a nonprofit that advocates the preservation of sustainable, traditional practices.
Spiced Pear Margarita, Empellón Taqueria, New York City
Chef Alex Stupak’s buzzy restaurant pushes the boundaries of what we consider Mexican food. And director Noah Small’s cocktails get just as creative. Case in point: the spiced pear margarita at Empellón Taqueria (one of two New York locations). Poire William—an eau-de-vie made from Williams pear—adds an extra sweetness to Tapatio Reposado and pear purée. This margarita is topped with a ginger salt, one of many specialized salts. One of its specialty salts, sal de gusano (“worm salt”), a salt spiked with chiles and ground-up maguey, is dusted onto orange slices served alongside mezcal.
Smoky & Spicy Margarita, Broken Shaker, Miami
The Freehand hostel’s cocktail bar is no stranger to a carefully crafted margarita. This particular version gets its heat from spicy agave consisting of serrano and chipotle peppers. It is shaken with Herradura silver tequila, Pierde Almas mezcal, and lime juice and, of course, rimmed with a spicy salt. Broken Shaker’s herbs and spices are grown in the on-site garden. You can imbibe poolside or near the ping-pong table while a DJ spins.
Mezcalarita, Barrio, Seattle
Of Barrio’s 10 margaritas—including one mixed with blue curaçao—spirits director Casey Robison admits he’s partial to the Mezcalarita. He shakes it with Del Maguey “Vida” mezcal, high-end Giffard triple sec, fresh lime juice, and honey syrup (rather than sugar or sour mix). The refreshing cocktail is topped with sal de gusano, a traditional salt from the Oaxaca region of Mexico, created from dried agave grub worm, salt, and chile. It pairs nicely with the short rib mole.