Mexican Food 101

Salvation in a Glass: An Ode to the Frozen Margarita

Illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

Embrace the heat.

I read that shred of feel-good advice years ago in an article called something like "Ten Ways to Be Less Cranky." It was instantly clear that whoever wrote it hadn't been to Texas, where you quickly learn that 100-degree heat is the enemy for a full third of the year, and that embracing it would get you little more than a seared torso. Battle it, endure it, or resign yourself to it, but don't welcome it. At least not out loud.

But over time, the idea has stuck with me. The coming of summer still makes me want to kick my feet and shriek, yet there are reasons that I look forward to it, and at the top of the list is a good margarita.

Texans love margaritas all year round, but we learn to love them when we're hot, so hot that it's hard to tell from one glance if we're crying or just sweating. Plenty of lime juice, a hint of orange, a brush of salt, and a dose of tequila, crushed together with ice. Ice as a tribute to better, cooler times. Enough ice to show Mother Nature, raging in full swelter, who's boss -- at least for the duration of the drink.

Obviously, the margarita was invented as a coping mechanism. In light of the blistering cloud of fire that stalls over our part of North America for months on end, someone had to invent a way to ingest lots of ice, a way that was less grating than chewing it. Because the temperature for at least half the year here is 97ºF, which is reputedly the temperature at which most murders are committed (it's hot enough to get very angry, but not hot enough to render someone non-violent), and because police records reveal a positive correlation between the chewing of ice and homicides, the invention of a slushy, delicious drink was the simplest way to keep the murder rate in check. But then arose the question: What else should be in it?

Well, electrolyte counts begin to wane when you sweat as much as we do in the summer -- i.e., all day, every day -- so it followed naturally that salt had to be a part of the drink, but just as a flavor accent. "I know, on the rim of the glass!"

Since a surefire way to cheer yourself up is to drink a controlled quantity of tequila (the liquor distilled from the core of the agave plant), that was the next part of the plan. Yes, alcohol dehydrates you. It also makes you hotter. But if you sit around drinking margaritas for long enough, the sun will almost certainly set. You may still have radiant heat to contend with, but you're no longer cooking by convection. Chances are good that you also no longer care quite like you used to.

Of course, then they needed something to mask the bite of the tequila. Fresh lime juice could do that nicely, as well as add a refreshing citrus tang. Plus, who wants to get scurvy in the middle of summer? A margarita is the next best thing to a vaccination. An orange-flavored liquor was added to further boost the level of Vitamin C and for its natural sweetening properties.

And voila! The margarita: Everything you need for your health, and antiseptic, too!

Since its creation, variations on the traditional margarita have evolved. There are margaritas on the rocks, margaritas made with strawberries, even margaritas sporting funky fresh flavors like mango and prickly pear. Certain establishments with limited liquor licenses even serve what is called a wine-a-rita. Then there are the avant-garde margaritas, usually lime-based but including specialty ingredients such as avocado or jalapeño. Most of the alternative 'ritas are worth at least a try, but beware the foamy, intensely green margaritas from a mix; they have a chalky taste and no sweet, sour, or salty notes to counter the tequila.

It's almost never too hot to sit outside and sip a marg. In fact, it's almost sacreligious to drink one inside if you have the choice. Shortly after we came to depend upon the curative powers of a margarita in summer, we fell in love with them. We began to drink them with our meals, especially Mexican meals, all year round. A margarita can make almost any day seem like a vacation day, and it finally gave us a reason to go outside in the heat of the summer.

Northerners have a similar ploy to contend with the weather that plagues them, and they call it skiing. They bundle up, then they exert, which makes them warmer. We of the opposite problem just strip down and relax, occasionally rubbing our frozen drinks across our sweaty brows and flushed cheeks.

It's safe to say that today, the frozen margarita is the national cocktail of Texas; it's the best way to ingest the ice, and really just about the only way to embrace the heat. -- Meredith Phillips

Limey Lagers and Chip Chasers: A Few Words on Mexican Beer

Illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

When it comes to a good Tex-Mex meal, there are a million variations based on a mix-and-match menu system. Start with the accepted building blocks -- enchiladas, tamales, guacamole salad, crispy tacos, etc. -- add rice and beans, or alternately use a catchy name (the Acapulco Platter, #2 Dinner). While the possibilities may not be endless, they're at least beyond the appetites of most mortals.

But the beverage situation in the same Tex-Mex joint is considerably easier to navigate. During weekdays or heavy lunch excursions, there's iced tea garnished with a thick wedge of lime. During the blast furnace summertime, there's the bubble-bowled refuge of the frozen margarita. But for dedicated beer drinkers and victims of freshman-year tequila binges, there's always the fizzy, quenching world of cerveza Mexicana. From a gringo customer's standpoint, Mexican beers are the perfect combination of the familiar and the exotic.

By and large, most Mexican beers offered in Tex-Mex restaurants are highly carbonated pilsners similar to mass-market American macro-lagers like Schlitz and Heileman's Old Style. In a blind tasting, most drinkers would note only subtle differences in dryness or flavor between Corona and Schaefer (both corn-heavy brews) or Dos Equis Lager and most Miller products. Most lagers in the group emulate their counterparts to the North, easy-drinking and the perfect foil for the crunch, burn, and weight of a Friday night Tex-Mex feast. Mexican beers like Carta Blanca, Sol, and the now-omnipresent Corona twins (regular "Extra" and its way watery "Light" version) give Budweiser aficionados an excuse to expand their menu Spanish without going too far afield taste-wise. Add the theatrical trappings of the traditional mezcal routine (slice of lime, lick of salt), and a bottled cerveza becomes an exotic alternative to everyday draft.

Brew jockeys searching the beer list for more flavorful options benefit, as always, from Teutonicingenuity and perseverance. Owing to a historical fluke of Hapsburg history, Mexico spent four years under Austro-German emperor Maximilian, who apparently never traveled without his brewing buddies. As a direct result or possible coincidence, two of the more popular brands of Mexican beer -- Negra Modelo and Dos Equis -- come from the darker, more malty subset of German lagers known as Vienna style. While not as weighty as most British ales, the Mexican Viennas are fuller bodied with more malt sweetness and character than the pale pilsners. Analytical quaffers have often referred to Negra Modelo as having "hints of chocolate on the palate," which ostensibly makes it a perfect match for mole. You make the call.

But whether you chase your chips with a lime-choked longneck or a stateside schooner of Shiner, you'll marvel at the ideal combination of barley and beef, of hops and jalepeños. Sip for the long haul or gulp 'em with gusto. Just remember the magic words when you're close to running dry: "Una más, por favor." --Pableaux Johnson

To Boldly Go Where No Wine Has Gone Before: Pairing Wine With Mexican Food

Illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

A smack of salt, a shooter of good-quality tequila, and a lick of lime -- that's my favorite way to start off a Mexican meal. It seems that tequila, margaritas, and their amigo beer are the perfect accompaniments to any style of Mexican food. However, to my recent surprise, wine with Mexican food can be fabulous, too.

On a Sunday afternoon, I sat at the bar at Fonda San Miguel with chef Roberto Santibanez and owner Tom Gilliland and discussed the mostly unexplored world of pairing wine with Mexican food. Santibanez, an imminently charming Cordon Bleu-trained chef hailing from Mexico City, told me that although wines made in Mexico won competitions on an international level as early as the 16th century, they were never really paired with Mexican food. Instead, they were served mostly at the tables of the noble class, mostly people with an affection for Spanish and other European fare. Typical Mexican citizens drank pulque and tepache, fermented beverages made from the maguey plant and pineapple, respectively. Later, beer partially succeeded these traditional beverages, but wine never really penetrated the Mexican culture and was never customarily drunk at the Mexican dinner table.

How has this changed? It hasn't, really. Almost none of the major international wine press even mentions Mexican food in connection with wine. This, I've found, is a mistake, and people like Gilliland at Fonda have spent almost 30 years trying to rectify that mistake.

Five years ago, Gilliland's quest became more public when he and John Roenigk from the Austin Wine Merchant gave a seminar at the Hill Country Wine and Food Festival on the merits of drinking wine with Mexican fare. Gilliland then took the fight back to Fonda, installing a $12,000 wine preservation system that allows for wine-by-the-glass service and gives greater visibility to the wines in the restaurant. He also lowered wine prices to further entice customers to enjoy wine with dinner. The results are good, but Gilliland still hopes for a more widespread acceptance and excitement about pulling the cork for a Mexican meal.

So what wine does go well with Mexican food? The consensus is that champagne and other sparkling wines match almost any Mexican dish -- Tex-Mex or interior -- the idea being that sparklers have high acidity, and the bubbles help bring a freshness that cleanses your palate. Dan Fitzgerald at the Austin Wine Merchant explains that high acidity is crucial to Mexican food and that sparklers typically have the necessary tartness. He added that, like carbonation in beer, the "scrubbing bubbles" help to refresh your palate after a spicy bite. Fitzgerald also suggests German Rieslings because of their high acidity and full body, and made the insightful point that cilantro-based dishes "scream" for Sancerre, a crisp, minerally Loire Valley wine made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape.

I explored some pairings to see for myself. Some wines tasted hot, or alcoholic, when paired with spicy dishes, but many with lower alcohol (below 13%) matched terrifically. Marqués de Cáceres Rioja, for instance, was delicious with Fonda's mildly spicy CochinitaPibil (pork baked with achiote) and their Pollo en Pipian Rojo (chicken in a sauce made of pumpkin seeds and guajillo chiles). A crisp, fruity Macon-Lugny Les Charmes Chardonnay also paid considerable compliment to the pork. At home, I greatly enjoyed an inexpensive Spanish Cava by Paul Cheneau with Enchiladas Suizas (enchiladas with tangy, jalapeño-accented tomatillo sauce and cream) and suspect, as everyone suggested, that sparkling wine is the wonder wine when it comes to pairing with spicy Mexican food.

But you shouldn't take my word for it -- or anyone else's, for that matter. Go out and create your own matches, or stay in and explore the pairing possibilities at home. These are uncharted waters. -- Anthony King

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