Alameda a la carte: A tequila tasting

Alameda a la carte: A tequila tasting

Cheryl Connick

What better way to celebrate the change in seasons than with a tequila/margarita tasting? My companion for this agave-filled adventure was Kimberly Skuta, a friend and certified tequila expert who earned her master’s degree from a program run by the venerable Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco. Her knowledge of tequila is endless, and it helped me navigate through a dizzying array of types and brands of tequila last Saturday night.

Tequila can only be called tequila if it’s made in five states in Mexico. Otherwise, it is considered mescal (which usually has a worm in the bottle). There are three types of tequila: blanco, reposado and añejo. Blanco (white or silver) is un-aged tequila, while reposado (gold) is slightly aged and has a caramel color. Añejo is aged for no more than three years. There is tequila called “super añejo” that can be aged in oak barrels for longer, but for our purposes, we will stick to the three traditional types.

The tequila you want to drink should be 100 percent blue agave. All tequila comes from the agave plant, which is a member of the lily family, but not all tequilas are 100 percent pure. Technically, tequila has to be 51 percent agave to earn the name, and the rest can be fillers like corn syrup and grain alcohol – which may be the reason you’ve had horrible hangovers in the past from tequila.

Typically, margaritas are made with blanco or reposado tequila mixed with lime juice or a bottled mixer and triple sec, which is an orange-flavored liqueur. These ingredients are served in a glass over ice or whirred in a blender for more of a slushy consistency. This tart, refreshing beverage was made popular in the 1970s with the aid of rumors that tequila could make you hallucinate. There wasn’t any truth to this, but the drink became part of bartenders’ repertoires and is also served as an excellent accompaniment to Mexican food.

Our first stop was La Penca Azul on Park Street, where Kimberly and I sat at the bar. It is a cozy, dark space with knowledgeable and helpful bartenders. It also has a separate entrance in case you don’t want to walk through the restaurant. Kimberly ordered the house margarita that is made with blanco tequila for $7.95. She likes hers on the rocks with no salt. I ordered the top shelf margarita on the rocks with salt that is made with premium reposado and a float of Grand Marnier for $9.75. The house was tart with a bright, citrus flavor, while the top shelf was smoother and more flavorful.

We were told La Penca doesn’t use bottled mix in their margaritas — only freshly squeezed oranges and limes with a splash of Cointreau, a brand name triple sec. We were able to verify this for ourselves when we spied a worker off to the side, diligently squeezing fresh fruit. The bartenders garnish their margaritas with orange and lime wedges and a stalk of soaked sugar cane.

Both drinks were delicious, but we couldn’t stop there. The bartender recommended the El Jefe, which is made with Siete Leguas and Don Julio 1942 tequilas for $18. Then we finished our visit with a margarita made with Jose Cuervo Reserva for $32, which had been aged in oak barrels for three years and was the best drink of the night.

La Penca Azul has an impressive cocktail menu that features many different types of margaritas, and you can always ask for a specific type or brand of tequila and they will gladly oblige. Oh, and another tip — their guacamole platter, served alongside a basket of chips and salsa, offers a delicious way to soak up the alcohol that you are consuming.

Our tasting tour continued at Juanita’s Restaurant, which is a block down Park Street from La Penca Azul. In contrast to its neighbor, Juanita’s bar is brightly lit and open to the rest of the family-friendly restaurant. The chairs were comfortable and the restaurant had a festive vibe.

Juanita’s cocktail menu isn’t quite as large as La Penca Azul’s, but it has a good variety of drinks to choose from. But this was a tequila tasting after all, so Kimberly ordered the ultimate margarita for $12.

The tequila was Milagro, which is 100 pecent blue agave mixed with triple sec and lime juice. Triple Sec is a cheaper cousin to Cointreau, with a similar orange flavor but lower alcohol content. I was going to order their house margarita, which is $6 and is made with Montezuma white tequila (not 100 percent agave), but Kimberly wouldn’t let me order it — I suppose I have new standards now. I ended up instead ordering the hibiscus margarita for $12 that is made with Herradura silver tequila, agave nectar, hibiscus and fresh lime juice.

The bartender told me he makes the hibiscus mix from dried hibiscus flowers and it gives this cocktail a beautiful red color. Both of these drinks came in large glasses — more quantity than La Penca Azul’s, but not quite as good. I chalk it up to La Penca Azul’s homemade citrus mixer.

We were given chips and salsa while we sat at the bar, and we both commented that the salsa was tastier than La Penca Azul’s. We also ordered food — an enchilada in red sauce and a chicken quesadilla. Both were excellent and I would consider going back for dinner, as the restaurant was full and the dishes coming out of the kitchen looked impressive.

I now know more than I ever thought possible about tequila, and I’m told this is just the tip of the iceberg. After all, Kimberly did try over 35 tequilas to earn her master’s certificate, and she holds the record for the fastest woman to complete the course. (We verified this with Tommy’s co-owner, Julio Bermejo, who’ve you might have seen on CBS Sunday Morning or read about in Food & Wine magazine. He makes a fabulous pre-made margarita mixer available at BevMo that’s named after the family restaurant.)

La Penca Azul, 1440 Park Street. 769-9110. Also 891B Island Drive. 814-0560. Juanita’s Restaurant, 1324 Park Street. 865-2588.