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Drink Tue Aug 17 2010
The hubby and I took a mini-vacation to Evanston on Sunday, packing a picnic lunch from Piatto Pronto in Andersonville -- the Milano sub for him, packed with the requisite Italian meats, and the Sardinia salad for me, a hearty but healthy combination of artichokes, canellini beans, chickpeas, roasted peppers, green olives and shaved grana padano cheese, all on a bed of spinach. After feasting at the beach, we decided to take a stroll around downtown Evanston. And like our cat hearing the siren song of the tuna can popping open, we found ourselves drawn to That Little Mexican Cafe for a mid-afternoon margarita.
We lucked out: On Sundays, TLMC's standard marg is just $4, a real deal, especially considering that (drum roll, please!) ... These are the new top contenders in the Happy Margarita Summer Project.
Not only were the margaritas perfectly balanced -- which for me means a bit on the tart side, with enough tequila so that I can taste it, but not so much that it burns going down -- they were also consistent from the first round to the third. This has not been true elsewhere.
And they were served up by Jorge, the best bartender I've met so far on this summer long sojourn to find the best margarita in Chicago.
(But wait! You say. TLMC is in Evanston, not Chicago! True. However, there's a second outpost in Edgewater, and several sources tell me the margaritas there are the same as those served in Evanston. Close enough.)
Back to Jorge. I've been to almost a dozen Mexican restaurants in the past three months, and he's the first bartender to take the time to school me on the subtleties of tequila. Jorge explained that 94 percent of tequila comes from Jalisco, and within that Mexican state, the blue agave plant from which tequila is distilled grows either in the highlands or the lowlands.
Jorge is a fine teacher (in fact, he confessed that education is his calling), but at a bar, show-and-tell is always more fun. He poured us two tequilas, one from each region, instructing us to sniff and swish and generally do what we would do if we were tasting fine wine. Sure enough, the highlands-grown tequila had an earthy flavor, the result of soil rich with volcanic ash; while the lowlands tequila was brighter, grassier.
He also poured us mezcal, which is not tequila at all. While tequila comes from blue agave, mezcal is produced from a different variety of agave grown primarily in Oaxaca. It's also distilled quite differently, first by roasting the core, or pina, of the plant in a pit of hot rocks dug into the earth, and then by mashing and fermenting the roasted pinas, sometimes with added fruits and spices, for an intense, often spicy, smoky product. While tequila is usually distilled twice or even three times, mezcal is typically distilled only once. Because this process results in a richer, bolder product than tequila, Mexicans don't tend to mix mezcal into cocktails, but rather sip it or take it as a shot.
With a renewed appreciation for Mexican liquor, my search for the best margarita in Chicago continues. Warning: That Little Mexican Cafe is a tough act to follow.