Doc's, Guero's and Malverde: Three places for margaritas that have nothing to do with that song
If you've ever been stuck in Florida for, say, a week, you realize that it's potentially a beautiful state. It's got sand, it's got sea, it's got sun. It's got Cuban food and crawdads and perfect Gulf oysters ready for the shucking.
Florida has a lot to offer, but if you wind up there for too long, you're likely to notice that something's just a tad off about the place. The drivers are notoriously slow, the tops of their heads barely reaching the tops of their steering wheels. The houses in much of Florida are either trailers or mansions. The flora and fauna usually wants to bite, sting, or prick you. The ocean either lies there, flat and floatable, or sucks you without warning into its huge, sandy maw.
And everywhere you go in Florida, from casino boat to little dive bar to grocery store, you're going to hear that song, that song that spawned an empire and very possibly ruined an entire state, that song that makes normal people scream and Hawaiian-shirted snowbirds swoon, that song about the inane pop-top, the ridiculous flip-flop and the apparently tragically misplaced shaker of salt.
Thankfully, here in Austin we treat margaritas right. We don't wail about them or lament them or wax nostalgic about them - instead we drink them. Here are three places (by no means the only or even necessarily the best) in a town full of the frothy concoctions, where you can openly curse Jimmy Buffet while still soaking up the sun and enjoying his favorite drink.
1123 S. Congress Ave. 448-9181, www.eatdrinkdocs.com . Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, until 1 a.m. Saturdays.
In a sea of candy-colored Tilt-a-Whirl chairs on South Congress lies the island of Doc's, basically a huge patio with a repurposed service station attached. The patio is ideal for sipping margaritas (and they have good micheladas too), which come out in freezing-cold glasses. In fact, it was at Doc's where I first debated the merits of frozen versus rocks margaritas, finally deciding that if you don't care all that much about the type of tequila being used (admittedly, I don't), then frozen is best since 1) the slushy ice evens out the flavor and 2) frozen margaritas make you feel like you're drinking your favorite 7-Eleven drink from yesteryear. If, however, you do care about tequila, then Doc's has four different kinds of margaritas ranging in price from $6.75 to $8.50, all of which involve some combination of tequila, fresh lime juice and either Grand Marnier or Cointreau.
Doc's has only one frozen margarita on the menu (a small is $4.75, pint-sized large $7.75), and it's made with gold tequila and 'Alternate Fuel'-which our waitress said was like Everclear. Thus it's a little potent, especially considering how quickly you'll want to drink it on a hot day. One of them will make you bounce a little more in your springy metal chair, and two will make you think the grackles are actually trying to be friendly rather than steal your nachos and peck out your eyes.
Güero's Taco Bar
1412 S. Congress Ave. 447-7688, www.guerostacobar.com . Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Güero's is good for seeing and being seen. The spot is haunted by celebrities and thronged with shoppers and tourists going from Allen's Boots to Uncommon Objects and wherever else in between. It's been in movies. It's always crowded. Dogs seem to love the sidewalk patio. And Güero's has a good feel to it - it's a bright, whitewashed space with high ceilings and plants galore. Plus it has 15 different kinds of rocks margaritas. Sort of.
When we first arrived at Güero's, we asked the waitress the story behind a huge black-and-white picture of a woman that hangs behind the bar. She actually sighed and proceeded to tell us in a bored monotone. Granted, it was a semi-packed happy hour and granted, she's probably been asked that question many times before. But then we noticed most of the workers seemed disconsolate and bored, and I'm convinced the margarita menu is one reason why. Instead of saying, 'Pick your tequila, choose Cointreau or Grand Marnier and let us add fresh lime juice,' the menu lists 15 different varieties which are all essentially the same, save for the choice of tequila. The place would be more efficient and the bartenders very possibly happier, if the customer ordered a margarita and simply specified his or her choice of alcohol, like they do in most places. But then, Güero's is heavily patronized by out-of-towners who very possibly like the idea of a Tex-Mex restaurant rather than actual Tex-Mex restaurants.
We ordered the El Magnifico (Herradura Añejo and Cointreau for $7.50), which was super limey, and the frozen with a Cointreau floater (also $7.50, and served in the smallest rocks glass I've ever seen), which was somehow salty-on-the-inside, not just on the rim. During happy hour (all day Mondays and Tuesdays and 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays to Fridays), drinks are 50 cents off, making it more like 'OK Hour.' The Güero's Dip was a washed out version of Magnolia Cafe's Mag Mud, with dry cheese and gray beans but decent pico de gallo.
After that bartender's sigh and several just-OK margaritas, I felt like Güero's could best be symbolically summed up by a sign in the bathroom over the sink, which reads 'Caution: water is VERY HOT.' I turned on the taps and braced myself for some scalding, but, as it was with my Güero's experience, the water ended up being just lukewarm.
400-B W. Second St. www.malverdeaustin.com . Hours: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.
Growing up, I was obsessed with the treehouse community where Zephyr the monkey lived in Laurent de Brunhoff's 'Babar' books - the plants, the lounging places, the bananas ripe for the picking, the close proximity of the sky and the relative distance of all the people. Malverde is a little like that, sans the bananas. It has an airy rooftop and a wide view of the Second Street District, perched as it is above La Condesa, the Mexican restaurant. Lush plants trail down from wooden boxes attached to the ceiling, and the couches along the floor practically beg you to pass out on them. Instead of the chattering of monkeys and the noises of jungle life, however, Malverde has DJs at night, yacht rock in the afternoons, and the constant clank of cranes coming from the W Hotel site across the street.
Their Malverde margarita (Sauza Hornitos Plata tequila, pineapple juice, lime juice, Damiana herb liqueur and a cactus-lemongrass-infused salt on the rim) almost made me a rocks convert. Despite all the ingredients, Malverde's Passion Fruit and Spiced Mango margarita (Sauza Tres Generaciones Reposado tequila, ginger, passion fruit, spiced mango and lemon juice) just tastes like a regular old margarita. Normally $10 and $12 drinks, respectively, they were $5 and $6 during happy hour (5 to 7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays), made with genuine care and some serious shaking. They were by far the best deals of the day.