Tuesday, March 11, 2014

No. 86 – There’s Only One Way to Rock

Performer: Van Halen
Songwriter: Sammy Hagar
Original Release: Standing Hampton (Sammy Hagar)
Year: 1981
Definitive Version: Live Without a Net, 1987. I love this version for the video. Check it out when you can. Aside from it being a sensational performance, I find it hilarious.

This song opens the show, and Van Halen comes out blazing away. I mean they’re absolutely burning the place down. You can see how happy EVH was at the time to be rid of Diamond Dave, shooting sparks and trading licks with Sammy Hagar. Yet the crowd, at least those behind the stage, is a sea of blank faces as though they somehow ended up at a Culture Club gig. Uhhhh … this ain’t Jump.

Although I like facets of both, as this here list would attest, I guess in the end, I’m a Sammy guy. Sammy Hagar strikes me as one of the coolest guys on the planet. Aside from writing a few good songs, also as this here list would attest, he’s my drinks guru, at least when it comes to the margarita. The journey to the perfect Willerita continues, but I got a big assist courtesy of Sammy.

As I mentioned, back when I began to drink margaritas, probably in the mid-90s after I moved back to Columbus, I treated the margarita like most people—shamefully. That means I drank it frozen and flavored. Deplorable. The margarita is a respectable drink, and it should be enjoyed like any other respectable drink. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I can’t remember when I dropped the raspberry and the slush—the raspberry came first, I’m sure of it—but by the time I started dating Laurie, I had made the transition to a rocks margarita with a salt rim. I was on my way to respectability.

Two key events happened four months apart: In December 2007, Laurie and I went to visit Paul, Jin and Bridget in L.A. During our stay, we had Mexican night at home. I made my famous fish tacos (a from-scratch recipe that I more or less invented); Laurie made guacamole; and Paul made margaritas. Put that information in your back pocket.

Four months later, Laurie and I were in tequila’s home—Mexico. There I saw something I’d never seen before—an honest-to-goodness respectable margarita.

In Mexico, at least in the local restaurants of San Miguel, the margarita was served in an eight-ounce tumbler, like a real cocktail, and not in some clown glass the size of a goldfish bowl. More important, the margarita didn’t look like antifreeze. Instead, it looked like a shower door: translucent whitish, no hint of slime green or electric yellow anywhere.

When I got home, I decided to start making my own magaritas to have whenever I made Mexican, which was a lot. (I have several recipes not of my own creation that I make on a fairly regular basis.) After a distraction during the rest of 2008 (ahem), I had Paul send me his recipe from when we visited in 2007. He happily complied, adding a great tip: Don’t cheap out on the tequila. Better quality tequila equals a better quality margarita.

Armed with that knowledge, it was off to the liquor store. I started with Don Julio anejo, Grand Marnier and sweet & sour mix rather than margarita mix—all per Paul’s recommendation. Thus was born the Willerita, sometime in 2009.

They were pretty good, and Laurie and I dug them when I made a pitcher to take to Ravinia to see the Gypsy Kings, but … something was missing. I started with Paul’s ratio of one part tequila to four parts mix, but that was too sweet and weak. I cut it to one-to-three, which worked better. But I couldn’t get my margaritas to look like those in Mexico or at La Fonda, a Cuban restaurant we found in the interim that made what I thought was the closest margarita to those in San Miguel.

The turning point came in September 2011, not more than two weeks after I started this here blog. At the end of our tour of Northern California—Yosemite, Tahoe and Napa Valley—Laurie and I spent the night in Sacramento near the airport, so we wouldn’t have trouble making an early flight home.

We had been eating well the whole trip, but we hadn’t had any Mexican—indefensible, considering we were in California. I Yelped our area and found what appeared to be a decent place not far from the Sheraton Four Points where we stayed. Unfortunately, when we got there, the place was closed, as in it appeared to never exist. Well, that sucks.

We passed a couple dozen restaurants along the way, so we knew we weren’t lacking for choices. One place particularly appealed to Laurie as we drove past it. I wasn’t as keen, but considering my pick was a whiff not having any better options, we stopped there.

Malabar looked like a brash, upscale sports bar on first glance. There must have been at least 50 TVs hanging around the room, so you never had to look away from the game (and, God forbid, at the person or people you’re with). But the sound wasn’t excessive. Fine; I’m hungry.

The menu had plenty of interesting choices, several of which were at least Mexican infused, including a shrimp skewer thing that came with jicama. Hey, that works. Laurie was eying the chili relleno burger when I noticed a margarita special. The special said it used “Sammy’s Waborita recipe.” Oh really?

I’d known that Sammy Hagar was into tequila. In fact, I remember seeing him on Emeril Live on the Food Network to hawk his Cabo Wabo tequila. I felt sorry for him at the time. Wow, kicked out of Van Halen and THIS is what he resorts to? I shouldn’t have.

The restaurant didn’t have any ties to Sammy as far as I knew, but if it was serving Sammy’s recipe, as it claimed, and Sammy’s tequila, which it was, how could we go wrong? Laurie agreed to give it a try.

The drinks came out in a martini glass (how La Fonda serves its margartia), and it definitely had that whitish translucent look that I liked. The first sip blew the back of our heads off. Now THIS is what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!

When we got home, I sought “Sammy’s recipe” online and was stunned by what I found. I not only didn’t have the right ingredients; I had the ratios totally reversed.

Sammy’s recipe called for two parts tequila to one part Cointreau and one part fresh lime juice. Woah. No wonder his margarita tasted so strong. It WAS strong. It was basically straight alcohol with a little lime juice to ward off scurvy. It was back to the liquor store.

I bought some Cabo blanco and Cointreau to see what the fuss was all about. I got it as soon as I poured it into my mixing shot glass—it was clear, not dark orange like Grand Marnier. (Triple Sec is clear, too, but it’s harsher than Cointreau.) When combined with the Cabo and fresh lime juice as opposed to a mix, the drink looked … translucent whitish. Hell yeah!

We gave the new Willerita a trial run at a BYOB Mexican restaurant on our street corner. The service was terrible, so it took forever for our food to arrive. Thanks to Sammy’s recipe, it didn’t matter: We felt no pain from our jug of Willeritas. There’s only way to rock a margarita, and that’s Sammy style.

So, I definitely have it down, but … well … I’m a perfectionist. I keep experimenting with tequilas just to see if I can find something better, and I’ve tried at least a dozen. I prefer Cabo blanco with a splash of Casa Nobile reposado, but perfection is a process. My mixology quest is to craft the perfect margarita … and to get people to stop treating them like liquid cotton candy.

Show some respect!

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