How the Margarita Became American

The Margarita-slinging Mexican cantina has informed America's understanding of south-of-the-border culture since the midcentury. Leslie Pariseau on how the Margarita embedded itself in America, and the Southern California cantinas that have long been its lifeblood.

On a recent Monday night, the barroom at El Coyote, a classic Mexican joint in Los Angeles, is filling up. A dozen middle-aged guys sit thumbing their iPhones. A woman whose nametag declares her 37-year Coyote tenure swishes around the room in a rhinestone-flecked fiesta skirt dropping off sets of chips and salsa, and a bartender who’s been serving Margaritas here for nearly 30 years quickly whips up a half-dozen. And another half-dozen. And another. So has been El Coyote’s rhythm for decades.

“If you want to stay in business for 100 years or more, smother everything in yellow cheese and leave it under a heat lamp until it cauterizes,” jokes Bill Esparza, a Mexican-American food writer known for his coverage of Southern California’s taco scene. Another tip: Serve cheap Margaritas alongside aforementioned yellow cheese, and be cemented in the landscape of California comfort food for all time.

Established in 1931 and relocated from La Brea to Beverly in 1951, El Coyote was one of many midcentury Mexican establishments whose trappings seemed straight out of a film set: leather booths, wrought iron adornments, art portraying Mexican peasants. It’s a scene that telegraphs a specific idea of romantic, rustic Mexico filtered through midcentury Hollywood’s less-than-politically-correct lens.

“These places are interesting because they bring out the issues of the era and the idea that, even though our tastes have changed, these places haven’t,” says Besha Rodell, LA Weekly‘s restaurant critic.

El Coyote Mexican Bars LA

In a way, the issues of the era are comparative to those that surround midcentury tiki bars. In the 1950s, white American men like Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber were appropriating a Polynesian fantasy-cape, conflating everything from Caribbean to Hawaiian to South Asian cultures into a single nightlife trope that helped sculpt America’s idea of “tropical vacation,” if only for an evening.

Similarly, the cantina culture of Southern California and Texas—a perpetual fiesta of frozen Margaritas, queso and mariachi—came to incorrectly inform a generation about the food and drink of their border country. The difference between tiki and the precursors to chains like Chi Chi’s, however, is that the Southern California cantina’s origin is truly Mexican.

“Mexican-Americans built [LA’s Mexican restaurants],” says Esparza. “Every food, when it moves into a foreign market, adapts to that market and tries to make popular food.” The cantina dishes at places like El Coyote, though not true to the nuance of Mexican regionality, eventually came to symbolize home for many Americans and Mexican-Americans. And the Margarita—which still remains largely a tourist drink in Mexico—became the ultimate sidekick.

But how did this drink, still overshadowed by the Paloma in its homeland, become so embedded into the American experience of going out for Mexican?

In Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Gustavo Arellano recounts how a series of influences—namely Sauza and Cuervo entering the American market in the 1950s and a boom of resort tourism to Mexico in the 1960s—conspired to turn the Margarita into a beloved American classic rivaling the Manhattan or the Martini. The lime-flavored sea change truly arrived in 1971, though, when Mariano Martinez, a Dallas Mexican restaurant owner whose father taught him the appeal of the Margarita, retrofitted a soft-serve machine to become a Margarita dispenser.

Though he never patented his machine, Martinez’s freezing, gut-punch of a cocktail melted its way into the American consciousness as the immortal foil to rice, beans and yellow cheese.

“When I first moved to LA, I lived in the valley and I went to Casa Vega. And still when I go back, I have to get the giant Margarita,” says Esparza. For him, like for many second- or third-generation Mexican-Americans, the experience of eating and drinking in these places is a symbol of how Latin cuisine and culture has thrived and morphed into its own wonderful version of Cal-Mex or Tex-Mex, both of which are actually American cooking in the truest sense of the word.

“Tex-Mex, at its best, works,” says Rodell, “because it’s a true representation of the American experience. It’s also why we have a special place in our hearts for a crappy Margarita.”

Back at El Coyote, the barroom is packed. A guy down the bar is evangelizing about the merits of fresh lime juice in a Margarita to his friend. The bartender nods knowingly and echoes the customer’s sentiment. “Speaking of which, can we get another round?”