The Debatable History of Margaritas (and Where to Order Them in the Coachella Valley)

We may not know where they come from, but we sure like to drink ’em.

June 25, 2023
Story by Elina Shatkin
Pueblo Viejo Grill
Strawberry, tamarindo, and mango at Pueblo Viejo Grill.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MOLLIE KIMBERLING

The story of the margarita is the story of how three simple ingredients changed cocktail culture. Tequila, orange liqueur, and lime — the unholy trinity of booze, sugar, and acid. In our modern era, it’s such a standard combo, it’s barely worth mention- ing. You might as well write an ode to spreading butter on bread or dredging chicken wings in hot sauce. But basic ain’t bad. The drink’s simplicity creates infinite opportunity for variation.

The most common margarita origin myth says it was invented in 1938 by a man named Carlos “Danny” Herrera, who owned the Rancho La Gloria restaurant in Tijuana. He supposedly developed the libation for a dancer who wouldn’t drink any liquor except tequila. Convenient, right? Another tale claims Dallas socialite Margaret “Margarita” Sames invented the drink in 1948, while holidaying in Acapulco. Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada and Tommy’s Place Bar in Juárez both insist they were the site where the margarita was first mixed. Wine Enthusiast speculates that it was conceived sometime in the 1940s and named for actress Rita Hayworth, who was born Margarita Carmen Cansino. Success has many fathers, but failure is a dirty shot glass moldering at the end of the bar.

Strawberry guava is a favorite at Tac/Quila, also known for their tasting flight.

Although we don’t know precisely where or when the margarita was invented, it’s probably much older than any of these accounts suggest. In his 2015 book, Imbibe!, cocktail historian David Wondrich makes a credible case that the drink’s origins stretch back to the 1800s.

In Spanish, “margarita” is the word for daisy, the cute (and common) white and yellow flower that often fills out bouquets. In the early 1900s, the Daisy was a popular style of cocktail, one that dates back to the Victorian Era. It had three core elements — a spirit, a liqueur, and lemon or lime juice. The spirit was typically brandy. According to Difford’s Guide, the Daisy was created at some point before 1876. The margarita we know today likely began life as a “Tequila Daisy.” Its creation, while more evolutionary than revolutionary, is a textbook example of three elements combining to create something far greater than the sum of their parts. That’s all great, but what do you do when you just want a drink? Preferably something strong, cool, and tart.

In the Coachella Valley, you’ll find one of stiffest variations of the classic rocks margarita at Armando’s Dakota Bar & Grill in Palm Desert. This concoction is about as subtle as a bag of hammers and so strong you are not allowed to order more than two. Which is good. If two of these things don’t make the passersby on El Paseo seem a bit blurry, you might want to reexamine your alcohol tolerance. So, you sit under the misters, chipping away at the fried tortilla bowl of your taco salad as you sip your industrial-strength margarita and contemplate exactly how much tequila is in it (two-and-a-half shots of Montezuma Gold, to be precise).

A spicy mango blend at Armando’s Dakota Bar & Grill.

When you want something fruitier and less intense, head to Pueblo Viejo Grill, a family-owned restaurant with a crowd- pleasing menu of flautas, fajitas, tacos, and tamales alongside an impressive array of margaritas. I counted 10. “And there’s more,” says manager Norma Cruz, “but those are the most popular ones.” Cruz’s father and uncle opened the original Pueblo Viejo in Indio in 2005, then added the Palm Desert outpost a few years later. Cruz has been at the Indio location from the beginning. So have most of the margaritas. “Classic margaritas, skinny margaritas, spicy margaritas, Cadillac margaritas, flavored margaritas, we make them all,” Cruz says. Her favorite is La Flaca Fina, a “skinny” Cadillac margarita. But really, it’s all about the blended fruit margaritas around here.

They currently offer three — strawberry, mango, and tamarindo, “which people are really starting to love,” Cruz says. “The tamarindo is like an agua fresca, and we spike it up and make it into a margarita. It’s very popular, especially with some Tajín on the rim.”

Pueblo Viejo has experimented with raspberry, peach, and guava margaritas. Now, they stick to the most popular flavors, mango being number one. Each starts with a purée of fresh fruit and simple syrup. The key is regulating the fruit, sugar, and alcohol (again, Montezuma Gold) so it becomes a cocktail rather than an alcoholic smoothie. That’s a tricky thing at some establishments, but Pueblo Viejo has found a happy medium. On a good day, Cruz estimates she sells about 200 margaritas.

Pineapple passion fruit is one flavor of the margarita tasting flight at Tac/Quila.

If you’re the type of person who needs to try one bite of everything at a buffet (i.e., adventurous yet indecisive) or you’re craving something new, you go to Tac/Quila in downtown Palm Springs and order the margarita flight. It’s what the breezy, upscale restaurant has become known for, and rightly so, since opening in April 2019.

The drinks, approximately 4 ounces each (or the equivalent of two standard cocktails, in total), arrive in four small goblets served in a custom wood serving rack. These days, you’ll get a watermelon margarita made with tamarind syrup to cut its potentially cloying sweetness; a pineapple passion fruit margarita anchored by Chinola, a passion fruit liqueur; a jamaica margarita, its hibiscus flavor amped up with housemade jamaica agave syrup; and a spicy cucumber margarita prepared with house-infused serrano tequila. It’s an embarrassment of riches. You may prefer some flavors over others, but every one of them is delicious.

Armando’s Dakota Bar & Grill pours margaritas so strong that the limit is two.

If a margarita is popular enough, it can get promoted from featured guest to series regular, like the Guavamente, Tac/Quila’s strawberry guava margarita. “Guava itself is very potent, and strawberry is a little bit more subtle,” says bar manager Jonathan Garcia. “I do a 2-to-1 ratio for the purées, a full ounce of strawberry purée and half an ounce of guava purée. They complement each other. You’re not getting too much guava but not so little that you can’t taste it.”

Fresh produce, housemade purées, a good baseline tequila (Lunazul, if you’re wondering), and meticulously balanced flavors are crucial to the experience. That’s why Garcia does extensive R&D during the off- season then debuts a new margarita flight in the fall. In the past, he has served prickly pear, avocado cilantro, and kiwi mint margaritas.

For this coming autumn, he’s working on a wild-berry margarita involving strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries as well as one with blackberries, black currants, and mezcal. “That one’s a very unique flavor palate,” Garcia says. “It’s a tart sweetness with a bit of a smoky note to it, so that’s going to be a new one for us.”

Nouveau or old, classic or farmers market funky, standard or extra strong, every one of these margaritas needs only one thing — someone to love it.