Until cocktails to go become a reality in Pennsylvania, Philadelphians who want to sip a freshly shaken margarita while digging into takeout tacos are on their own. The classic margarita recipe is straightforward enough, but what happens when there’s no lime or triple sec in the house? Or worse: no tequila? El Vez bartender Alexandra Haftek has some ideas.
Haftek has been mixing up margaritas at Stephen Starr’s Mexican restaurant at 13th and Sansom for 10 years. (She’s not even the longest-running employee at the restaurant, which opened in late 2003.) When the coronavirus pandemic hit the Philly area, El Vez closed for a few weeks before reopening on April 29 for takeout and delivery. But in keeping with PA’s liquor laws, mixed drinks are not included in the to-go options at restaurants.
When its bar was open, El Vez’s signature drink was the frozen blood orange margarita and Haftek would use something similar to a Slurpee machine to mix it up. That’s not easy to recreate without the right tools, she says, so her go to at home is a traditional lime margarita.
State stores sell the mid-grade tequilas Haftek prefers to use — better than bottom shelf, but “nothing too expensive that’s more of a sipping tequila,” she says. For those who aren’t stocked up on any type of tequila and haven’t had luck trying to place an order at a newly reopened Fine Wine & Good Spirits, Haftek gives other options: “If you don’t have tequila, you can make a great margarita with vodka, or even bourbon. I have people at El Vez who ask for Hennessy margaritas.”
The key to any great margarita is fresh-squeezed lime juice, she says, but even that can be substituted with orange or grapefruit juice, or pineapple juice for a sweeter drink. For an on the rocks version of the El Vez signature, blood orange Pellegrino gets close to the flavor.
Triple sec is standard in a margarita, though agave is currently the trendier option, Haftek says. If she’s out of both, she swaps in honey, or regular white sugar boiled with water into a simple syrup. Sugar substitutes like Stevia work too. For those who don’t have a shaker in the cabinet, taking two glasses and sloshing the combined liquids and ice from glass to glass — over a sink — will do.
Salt rims add a restaurant-like sipping experience. “You can make a spicy chili-salt rim with the spices you have in your cabinet. Grab some salt, some cayenne pepper or chili powder, for your own homemade mixture,” Haftek says.
A cinnamon-sugar rim is another option, best paired with a pineapple margarita. “Margaritas are so versatile,” she says. “You can go sweet, spicy, tart, skinny, as long as you have a balance of citrus and sweet. You can do something for every different kind of taste bud.”