The Absolute Best Margarita in New York

Mayahuel’s off-the-menu margarita. Photo: Paul Wagtouicz

It’s time to name the best margarita. Of the way too many sampled, the bare-bones versions — meaning those that followed a three-ingredient recipe or thereabouts — turned out to be the best, which isn’t a knock against any cantaloupe, hibiscus, or matcha margaritas on offer around town. It should be noted that the frozen version of the drink, which in general tends to struggle for dignity more than it should, hasn’t been included this time out. It’s nothing personal; we just couldn’t risk the brain freeze.

The Absolute Best

1. Mayahuel
304 E. 6th St., nr. Second Ave., 212-253-5888

The East Village tequila-and-mezcal-focused bar just celebrated seven years in business. The slight ramshackle feel is the same as the day it opened, as if the booths downstairs and room upstairs had been cobbled together from the detritus of a bordello that exploded and floated down the Rio Grande in pieces. Lots of people order the margarita, despite the fact that there is no margarita on the menu. The recipe needed to be faithful, partner Justin Shapiro says, to the drink’s apocryphal, early-20th-century roots, which is to say uncomplicated and amazing. The spare, sophisticated drink is Siembra Azul Blanco, Cointreau, and lime juice that gets mixed, shaken, and poured onto big ice cubes in a hefty rocks glass. Some customers opt for rocks with no rim; others want a rim with no rocks. It works either way, with the sweet, tobacco-like aromatics of the highlands-grown agave coming through in sips with the tangy lime.

2. Leyenda
221 Smith St., nr. Butler St., Carroll Gardens; 347-987-3260

Just as it is at Mayahuel, there is no mention of a margarita to be found on the menu at this Carroll Gardens spot, which is co-owned by bar legend Julie Reiner. (It’s right across the street from her consistently great Clover Club.) Ivy Mix, Reiner’s partner, has for the last year been making inventive and delicious cocktails that favor pisco and sherry and rum, but also a veritable trade wind of citrus oils, dried guajillos, and tropical notes like macadamia, which renders down into the housemade orgeat. Mix’s spec for the house margarita keeps things basic: Arette Blanco Tequila, equal parts Cointreau and lime juice, and a dash of simple syrup to rein in any lingering sourness. It’s a perfect way to start a night, as a cornerstone to more cocktails, or to pair with anything off Sue Torres’s menu.

3. Ofrenda
113 Seventh Ave. S., nr. Christopher St.; 212-924-2305

Seven years ago, when the cozy West Village restaurant opened, the lone margarita on offer was made with jalapeño-infused tequila and was sweetened with agave. That chile-flavored cocktail is still on the drinks list, but it gets second billing to the no-frills classic. In addition to offering the “traditional” at a discount during the rollicking happy hour, Ofrenda gets two crucial things right: Its pitchers are jumbo — the drink loses none of its stiffness in the resize — and the bar readily offers more fancy flavored versions of the drink (mango, pineapple, cucumber) at a $1 markup.

4. El Parador Café
325 E. 34th St., nr. Second Ave., 212-679-6812

The city’s oldest continuously running Mexican restaurant debuted in 1959, which was when Charlton Heston flexed his Crisco-greased biceps in Ben-Hur, Berry Gordy had his first hit record with “Money (That’s What I Want),” and Disneyland finally got its futuristic monorail. In 1972, New York lamented El Parador’s hard-to-find front door, but otherwise praised the cactus salads and so-called “haunt of Beautiful People.” Margaritas cost $3 by 1972, and the strong, entry-level model now retails for $10. It is well worth every penny, not just for a chance to sit in the árbol-chile-red dining room and soak in some history. Get a side of the peanut-butter-stuffed jalapeños for good measure.

5. Rosa Mexicano
1063 First Ave., at 58th St., 212-753-7407

Two ambitious Mexican restaurants opened in 1984. One was the cheeky Caliente Cab Co., which later informed the gaudy Señor Swanky’s and arguably paved the way for so many balloon hats and unbridled cries of “shots, shots, shots, shots, shots” at Señor Frog’s, our current tilde-d fever dream. Across town, Rosa Mexicano opened with a mission statement of introducing tinga de res to New Yorkers and making the dining world a little less safe for Tex-Mex. It’s tough to tell who prevailed: Rosa’s Slurpee machine constantly dispenses frozen pomegranate margaritas that routinely top best-of lists, but its “tradicional” unfrozen version is consistently strong, slightly sweet, and on the rocks, not to mention underrated in its own right.

6. Cosme
35 E. 21st St., nr. Broadway, 212-913-9659

“This is something that, when done without thought, is often done poorly.” That’s a warning from Dale DeGroff, the inimitable and influential bar titan, on the seldom-discussed topic of salt rims. The idea is that a good margarita shouldn’t have a heavy application, because flakes tend to trickle down into the drink. Nor should the glass wear an intact halo of the stuff, because few people want to brace for saline with every sip. The rocks glass at Enrique Olvera’s Flatiron restaurant is a little taller than most, so there’s more drink, and it comes with an incomplete rim — Leyenda, above, takes this seriously as well. The tequila is Cimarrón, which is boutique-y and fermented with proprietary yeast and befits the Michelin-starred chef. The recipe also eschews Grand Marnier and Cointreau for Combier, the original triple sec, made with bitter West Indies oranges in the scenic Loire Valley since 1834.

The Absolute Best Margarita in New York