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With a Grain of Salt 

My sister mixed cocktails at and eventually managed one of New Orleans' most renowned destinations for tropical drinks. It seems strange to me, then, to watch her begin a batch of margaritas by pulling a bottle of Corona and a can of 7-Up from the fridge. The question was simple enough: What makes a great margarita? But with it, I've apparently put my hand up to be a guinea pig.

"Like any great drink," she says, upending the soda can into the blender, "It's all about the ingredients."

Perhaps my taste for margaritas isn't quite evolved enough for the Corona and 7-Up version. (If yours is, though, a 12-oz. bottle of Corona and a 12-oz. can of 7-Up go in equal parts with white tequila and lime concentrate).

For those who would rather let others mix the drinks, there are many local recipes to sample, with exotic selections of tequila and even novel vegetable ingredients.

Many restaurants offer margaritas that are a notch above bar versions. It might be informative to start with Superior Grill (3636 St. Charles Ave., 899-4200), which is a Mexican restaurant that also has a popular bar. Superior offers margaritas frozen and on the rocks, and the house margaritas are premixed. But the bar boasts one the most extensive margarita menus around. Choices range from the aforementioned house variety to gold- and silver-label tequilas to 'Designer" platinum and Anejo (aged) selections. The upshot is that the quality of ingredients is basically up to you " the expertise of the mixer, you never know. Flavored margaritas such as strawberry, peach and sangria also are served.

Lucy's Retired Surfers Restaurant and Bar (701 Tchoupitoulas St., 523-8995) has a large bar and serves burgers and California/Mexican dishes. I found myself there on a recent Friday at happy hour. As I drank a sweaty domestic beer, two men sprang from a taxi, shuffled to the bar and ordered two margaritas in the unmistakable stop-start garble of the English midlands. The bartender filled two plastic rocks cups with ice and a greenish mixture from a plastic bottle. After each had taken a sip, I asked what they thought. With a gleeful mix of praise and profanity, both approved. Take it for what you will. Like Superior, Lucy's offers an extensive margarita menu. The Mexican Martini, for example, is a Cuervo 1800 margarita garnished with jalapeno-stuffed olives and splashed with cranberry.

For something completely different, El Gato Negro (81 French Market Place, 525-9752) in the French Market offers, along with the original house-squeezed lime variety, a carrot juice margarita. And then you really do have to talk about Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Café (1104 Decatur St., 299-8608), which is right next door. While it uses its own brand of tequila, the range of margarita options get fancier with Cointreau instead of triple sec, and there is a wide range of fruit options including raspberry, mango and melon. All are also available in tall glasses to go.

A margarita is one cocktail that goes well with food, or at least with inexpensive Mexican cuisine. New Orleans probably has more great margaritas than Mexican restaurants, although many of the newer taquerias don't yet have liquor licenses so we'll have to wait and see what develops. In the meantime, Taqueria Corona (5932 Magazine St., 897-3974) enjoys a reputation as having good, tart margaritas, even at the basic 'house" level. Felipe's Mexican Taqueria (6215 S. Miro St., 309-2776) also gets the nod for its basic mix. Juan's Flying Burrito, on the other hand, is a great place to enjoy a cold Negro Modelo.

Like most drinks, a good margarita begins and ends with its ingredients, but recipes vary, and there are many new versions out there to try.

click to enlarge El Gato Negro serves a carrot margarita. - CHERYL GERBER


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