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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 best—just pour it on.

At Mexican café CHANGO(239 Park Avenue South, 477-1500)—which means monkey in Spanish—gourmet 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 ape—you'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.

Moctezuma avenged: tequila makes a comeback at Chango.
photo: Staci Schwartz
Moctezuma avenged: tequila makes a comeback at Chango.

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 think—there are a dozen other tequilas on the menu to try.

 
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