By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
No longer about cheap body shots, macho drinking contests, and nasty hangovers, tequila is making a comeback as a more respectable spirit. Distilled from blue agave, a tough-skinned plant in the lily family, the Mexican liquor can be as elegant as wine or as nuanced as scotch. Whether smoky or smooth, straight up or in a margarita pitcher, we're in search of Mexico's bestjust pour it on.
At Mexican café CHANGO(239 Park Avenue South, 477-1500)which means monkey in Spanishgourmet tacos ($8.95) can be paired with one of 60 tequilas (from $8 a shot for Vivida Reposado to a hefty $75 for the Herradura Suprema). This upscale cantina is no Burritoville: A soaring ceiling, warm ruby and apricot hues, intimate two-seater tables, and flat-screen TVs showing ¡Three Amigos! remind patrons they're still north of the border. Pink starter cocktails like the tequila sunrise (Sauza tequila, fresh orange juice, grenadine, and a splash of soda; $10) and Cabo Cosmo (Sauza tequila, Cointreau, splashes of fresh lime and cranberry; $10) help ease the uninitiated. For more kick, order the Chango sampler (price varies), a tasting of six "fantastic" premium tequilas. Only try not to go apeyou're on Park Avenue, after all.
If you miss home-style hospitality and cooking just like mamáused to make, venture to VERA CRUZ(195 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-599-7914). The back garden, with its dangly yellow and blue lights, flowery plastic tablecloths, and villa-style fountain, is an oasis off Williamsburg's main drag. Seek refuge with a thirst-quenching rocks margarita (tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice) prepared with sweet, full-bodied Hornitos tequila ($7.50) or smooth, slightly minty Patron silver ($8.50). The biker-like Mexican waiters are more than willing to dish out filling quesadillas ($8.25), spicy chicken fajitas ($11.95), and yummy guacamole ($5.95) on demand. Unfortunately, the patio doesn't have an exit: Back on Bedford, you'll find the same greasy hipsters you saw on your way in.
For a change of scene, head to Murray Hill, where zero pretense prevails at UNDER THE VOLCANO(12 East 36th Street, 213-0093), a dimly lit watering hole with nothing to prove. Dark wood, stained glass, leather seats, and a huge mirror frame the long narrow bar. There, the after-work crowd pays tribute to the struggling alcoholic in the Malcolm Lowry novel by sipping straight-up tequila shots. Glass cases filled with Mexican memorabilia (license plates, Frida Kahlo photos, and old almanacs) flank the corner nooks where customers can drink privately. Forgo the overpriced Porfidio Barrique ($49) for a chilled glass of Herradura Reposado ($9), a local favorite. The friendly staff will walk you through the drink list. And if you think you've had too much, listen to Lowry: "If our civilization were to sober up for a couple of days it'd die of remorse . . . " Just thinkthere are a dozen other tequilas on the menu to try.