Mexico is not a land of cocktail drinkers. Sure, hipster mixologists outfitted with suspenders and bow ties preside over trendy bars in Mexico City, just like in Portland. But if you sit down at a typical bar or cantina in Mexico—or one that serves Mexicans in Portland—you will see patrons mostly drinking beer and sipping tequila, mezcal or Buchanan's blended scotch—an affectation of narco culture.
Yet, America has long influenced Mexico by tempting its business-minded with the lure of dollars. During the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition and legal gambling turned Tijuana into a mecca for California's wealthy. There are many stories about how the margarita was invented, but most center on a casino bartender attempting to dazzle an American socialite. The drink gained popularity in Southern California, but once an enterprising young Mexican restaurateur in Dallas, Mariano Martinez, invented the frozen margarita machine in 1971, the margarita became a drink of the masses.
Mexico does have its share of native boozy beverages, many of which are regional specialties. The toritos of Veracruz, for example, blend sugarcane rum with fruits, nuts, and even coffee. (Veracruz is the birthplace of Kahlúa, as well.) The same is done with Mexico's oldest alcoholic beverage, pulque, the fermented syrup of the maguey (agave) plant, the same plant used to make tequila and mezcal. Straight, it has the feel of mucous and the flavor of sour milk. Blue-collar old-timers hunch over a Big Gulp-sized mug of this white stuff. Teens looking for a cheap buzz chug down curados, pulque flavored with guava, pine nut, tamarind, strawberry, pineapple and anything else to mask its natural flavor. But these are hardly what most Americans would think of as cocktails.
In the land of tequila—actually, the town of Tequila—there is a bar, La Capilla, where one of Mexico's most prolific bartenders, Don Javier Delgado Corona, now in his 90s, invented two of Mexico's most popular cocktails, the paloma and the batanga. They're variations on the same theme: the paloma is tequila mixed with lime and grapefruit soda. The batanga is tequila mixed with lime and Coke.
Many of the other cocktails you're likely to find in a Mexican bar are Caribbean imports—the piña colada, cuba libre, daiquiri and mojito, for example. The most common mixed drink in Mexico, however, doesn't contain any hard alcohol. It's the michelada, which can be as simple as beer and lime juice in a glass with a salted rim. Most Americans are familiar with more complex versions that include clamato, hot sauce, lime juice, and a savory element, such as Worcestershire sauce, Maggi, or even soy sauce. But at festivals and street fairs in Mexico, michelada stands have as many as a dozen variations. There are chamoyadas that have the sweet-sour-salty pickled plum sauce, chamoy. There are mangadas, a fruity mixture of mango puree and beer. And there are even gomicheladas with spicy gummy candies as a garnish.
WHERE TO FIND THEM IN PORTLAND
Margarita: Sadly, even most upscale Mexican restaurants in Portland are using low-grade tequila, like Sauza or Cuervo. The only reason a margarita needs a sweetener, like sugar or agave syrup, is due to bad tequila or bad taste. I recommend getting one from La Taq—El Jimador blanco tequila, lime and triple sec.
Cadillac margarita: Traditionally, this is a margarita with Grand Marnier, an orange liqueur made with Cognac. However, if the tequila isn't top-shelf, too, it's more of a Lincoln Continental than a Cadillac. Xico does one with Corralejo reposado tequila, lime, Combier, sugar, and a Grand Marnier float.
Paloma: It's a simple cocktail. It just needs good tequila and enough lime to take the sweet edge off the soda. I recommend Taqueria Nueve's version—Cazadores reposado tequila, lime and Mexican Squirt.
Batanga: Any restaurant can make one, but only La Moule, whose bar manager is a tequila aficionado, offers one as a rotating special. It's made with Pueblo Viejo reposado tequila, lime and Coke.
Cazuela: This monstrosity of a drink is surprisingly common in Mexican bars in Portland. There's no set recipe, just a bunch of different booze, fruit juices and liqueurs. And it needs to be served in something big, traditionally a large bowl (though La Bamba on Powell Boulevard serves one in a giant, plastic clam shell). Warning: You should not drink this alone. I prefer the version at Mariscos El Malecon—gin, vodka, rum, tequila, triple sec, pineapple juice, strawberry puree, grenadine, orange slices, lime slices, lemon slices, and cherries.
Michelada: Portland doesn't have any bars serving a variety of micheladas, but any of the marisquerias will serve you their house variation. I recommend Mariscos Las Islas Marias, where it has clamato, hot sauce, lime, and Maggi, garnished with Taj¡n and a skewer of shrimp and cucumber.
Note: Contributor Nick Zukin owns Mi Mero Mole. While we wouldn't let him say it himself, his shop has a huge selection of tequila and makes a mean marg.