The Frozen Margarita: A Texas Summer Staple

frozen margaritasAfter a week fighting the hot Texas sun, there was no taste like it—a hyper-cooled blast of sweet, tangy citrus sucked through a light-duty plastic soda straw. The bright flavors danced on the palate and the cold soothed a body craving relief from the region’s blast-furnace summer.

The first long draw of a Nuevo Leon frozen Margarita felt like heaven, but as soon as the barometric pressure evened out between sinus cavity and dining room, the realities of medical physics came into play. “Mmmmm, that’s the stuff,” went the usual pattern. (Quick pause.) “Uh-oh … oh, no. aahoooAAAAAAAAGH! DAMMIT!” (Long pause.) “Whoo! All better now.”

The Friday Night Brain Bomb was my weekly ritual at Nuevo Leon. The now-defunct ranch-house-turned-restaurant had four booths and maybe a dozen tables inside, eight on the deck—a homey family joint that served amazing but simple Tex-Mex cuisine and the best frozen Margaritas in Austin.

My standard order—large frozen, no salt—always hit the table with a delicate clunk. Served in curvaceous stemware the size of a carnival fishbowl, a large frozen was the best possible antidote for the hot season in Texas: deliciously tangy, core-cooling and affordable. In the midst of a string of 100-degree days, it was (and remains) the only logical beverage order for a Lone Star summer.

The Margarita itself was a platonic ideal of no-frills regional bar culture—made with lime juice instead of industrial sour mix, enough triple sec to balance the tang, and just the right amount of midgrade tequila to provide a welcome post-sip kick. The syrupy mix ran through an industrial-grade Icee machine and emerged as a perfect multileveled contradiction: frozen and smooth, sweet and sour, indulgent and affordable. When temperatures soared—which was most of the time—bartenders endlessly pumped pale jade slush into salt-rimmed stems to satisfy the always-parched crowds.

If you went to college anywhere in south or central Texas, you probably misspent a chunk of your youth wearing out yard-sale Osterizers while making grocery store limeade Margaritas. (Quick recipe: one 6-ounce can of frozen limeade, a full can of cheap tequila and half a can of bargain-basement triple sec. Add ice to fill beaker. Hit “Frappe” button until you smell electrical smoke. Pour and repeat.) But a few years later, a properly-churned Friday night frozen Margarita seemed like a welcome step in the right direction, a quiescently frozen gift from the gods. Sipped with its naturally occurring culinary partner—endless baskets of freshly fried, shatter-crisp tortilla chips with garlicky tomato salsa and decadent guacamole—the frozen soothed your soul and took your mind off your under-performing apartment air conditioner, if only for a couple of hours. An icy, tasty splurge that warded off heatstroke for another day.

Under different circumstances, the frozen Margarita’s flavor profile might be a bit too aggressive—too sweet, too tart, too cold, too strong—but when played against the standards of the Tex-Mex canon (gravy-soaked cheese enchiladas, sizzling beef fajitas, puddles of spicy-silky Velveeta queso), it’s baby-bear perfect. Acidic enough to cut through fatty richness, and sweet enough to tame the waves of jalapeño heat. Juuussst right.

While the frozen Margarita remains a standard in Tex-Mex joints the world over, Nuevo Leon (in its classic East Side incarnations, anyway) is a thing of the past—another family-run institution replaced by swaths of modern mid-rise condo farms. Luckily, you can still get an exceptional Large Frozen at other Tex-Mex destinations like Houston’s El Real. (I still can’t bring myself to order one outside of Texas. Blame it on my raising.) And just about every time, I’ll go through my usual routine—I’ll lick my chops, take a huge mouthful of frozen limey goodness, swoon a wee bit—and then feel the sharp pain of an icy railroad spike going through my right eye and into to my brain stem. “Uh-oh … oh, no. AaahoooAAAAAAAAGH! DAMMIT!”

Like a Pavlovian dog who never quite cleared the learning curve, I go through the first-sip suffering that goes along with citrusy, core-cooling refreshment. And just as predictably, my dining companions shake their heads and roll their eyes skyward.


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