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Finding the Ultimate Margarita in California

Finding the Ultimate Margarita in California

Whether you're toasting National Margarita Day, celebrating Cinco de Mayo, or just thirsty, the Golden State is the place to be

Posted 5 years agoby John Godfrey

According to legend, Carlos "Danny" Herrera invented the margarita in 1938 at his restaurant Rancho la Gloria, located at the midway point between Tijuana and Rosarito, Mexico. Marjorie King, a Zigfield dancer, was allergic to many spirits but not tequila, and the enterprising Herrera concocted a beverage that duly impressed the hoofer—and pretty much everybody else. 

In 1947 the margarita worked its way north to San Diego County, where it gained popularity at La Plaza restaurant in La Jolla. The potent potable later migrated south, and deeper into Mexico, as well as north throughout the Golden State. And now? Yes, margaritas can be found just about anywhere. It even has its own national holiday: February 22.

Given California's proximity to the original margarita and its early adoption of the beverage, we researched some of the top margaritas throughout the state and gathered the best of the best below. 

SAN DIEGO—As you might expect, margaritas are a very big deal in a city that hugs the Mexico-U.S. border. You can't really go wrong at any of the establishments in Old Town, but we're enamored with the offerings at La Puerta, a downtown eatery with a serious commitment to this cocktail. It offers nine different variations on the margarita as well as as 10 "Mexperience Libations" that demonstrate a dedication to the cause. 

ORANGE COUNTY—The eight spots listed here provide margarita enthusiasts with viable options throughout the county, ranging from spice-infused versions to some offerings on the sweeter side. We're intrigued by the 70-bottle tequila list at Sol Cocina Newport Beach — which includes "ultra-premium" brands — as well as the upscale setting and waterfront views. 

LOS ANGELES—Discover Los Angeles is all over the tequila trend, evidenced by this must-read article. "When you’re talking about Margaritas, you can’t ignore an institution—especially one in its ninth decade," writes author Karen Young. "Established in 1923, El Cholo opened its L.A. location (aka "The Original") in 1927 and now has locations in Downtown L.A., Santa Monica and Orange County. The classic El Cholo Margarita debuted in 1967 and is featured along with fruit and blended varieties." Beyond that classic, we can't wait to try the Salt Air Margarita at The Bazaar by José Andrés. "Andrés was sitting on the beach one day when he was inspired to create this special cocktail with a frothy sea salt top," Young notes. "As he saw the ocean waves hit the rocks, he thought it 'created a magical foam.' To mimic this, the foam is created with a mix of sea salt, sugar, and lime juice, while the drink is balanced with tequila, agave syrup, and lime juice."

GREATER PALM SPRINGS—When the mercury rises in the desert, margarita consumption tends to follow suit. Peruse this piece for inspiration, paying special note to the Mango Ancho Avocado Margarita at bluEmber, one of the bars at the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort and Spa. Here's the description: "This unique concoction combines fresh avocado with jalapeño tequila, triple sec (orange liqueur), fresh squeezed lemon and lime juice and organic agave nectar in a Tajín spice-rimmed glass served with a popsicle made from puréed fresh mango and cilantro." Doesn't sound awful, does it?

SANTA BARBARA—The smart folks at Visit Santa Barbara have assembled an incredibly useful guide to area margaritas, breaking things down into five distinct categories: The Traditionalists, The Creative Types, State Street Staples, A Luxury Twist, and Two If By Sea. We're particularly drawn to this description: "The craft cocktail menu at Milk & Honey Tapas includes a Violet Margarita with a float of raspberry liqueur and the mezcal and herb-driven Falkor’s Fire with tarragon, among many others."

SANTA CRUZ—"It’s always margarita season here in Santa Cruz," according to the Visit Santa Cruz County team. "Whether it's National Margarita Day, Cinco de Mayo, a warm day, or taco time, we’re always ready for this zingy, refreshing drink. In Santa Cruz, you can sip the world’s most popular cocktail poolside, beachfront, or even from a scenic hilltop." They're not joking around. This guide to finding the best margaritas in Santa Cruz names names, recommending some of the most popular blue agave-based beverages in the area. 

SACRAMENTO—The debate rages on: Frozen, up, or on the rocks? If you lean toward slushie-like textures, you'll really appreciate this guide to 11 Sacramento bars that specialize in frozen margies. Author Valerie Heimerich is partial to the offerings at Tequila Museo Mayahuel: "The frozen Mango Y Chile is a sweet and spicy combination of pureed mango, Tajin chile powder, and dried poblanos, and the signature cocktail for the restaurant is a fresh watermelon, cucumber and chile margarita." Can't say that we blame her.

SAN FRANCISCO—Eater did its research, identifying 17 different spots that deliver excellent margaritas in the City by the Bay, complete with a map so you don't get lost somewhere on your cantina crawl. We couldn't decide where to start...and then we read this writeup: "If you only drink one margarita from this list, make it a Tommy's margarita. Not only does Tommy's have what's probably the most extensive and well-curated tequila selections in San Francisco, the bartenders have been making the city's best margaritas for over 50 years." SF Travel editors concur, evidenced by this Top Six list

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