June 19 2012 10:54 PM

Drink Mexican without leaving the U.S. with tamarind, Tajín and tequila

Oscar Serrano prepares Romesco’s popular tamarind martini.
Photo by Brian Doll

As Derrik Chinn tells us, there are lots of great ways to get your drink on in Mexico. But making the trip south is a bit of a hassle. Luckily, the country's delicious boozy drinks can be found in San Diego, allowing you to avoid an awkward, alcohol-fueled exchange with agents at the border crossing.

Along with tacos and tequila, Mexico has given San Diego another gift that starts with a T—the tamarind martini. While this cocktail is available in most bars or restaurants in Tijuana, on this side of the border, it's as rare as a stripper with a master's degree.

Romesco, a Bonita Baja Med bistro owned by Mexico's culinary sweetheart Javier Plascencia, is one of the few places serving it up. Here you can find bartender Oscar Serrano making up to 170 of these drinks in a single night.

"People really love it," he says in his native Spanish. "It puts you in a good mood and is very relaxing."

To craft a tamarind martini, Serrano uses bricks of natural tamarind—a brown, pasty and tangy fruit used regularly in Mexican cuisine and candy. He de-seeds and cooks the tamarind until it becomes a thin, almost-liquid pulp. He adds sugar and "top secret" spices to the pulp to give it a spicy kick. The mixture serves as the base for the martini, as well as tamarind margaritas. Serrano thinks his pulp is the knockout punch that makes the tamarind martini so good.

He puts the base, along with vodka and natural syrup, in a shaker with ice and pours the soft brown concoction into a glass rimmed with the tamarind pulp and a spicy seasoning called Tajín that will make your eye twitch in the best possible way. The result is a sweetly sour flavor fiesta with a bit of spice that goes down smoothly and quickly. Seriously, in my case, that thing was gone in less than five minutes.

"It's the combination of all the flavors. I've tried this cocktail in a lot of different places, and it's never the same," Serrano says. "The Tajín definitely adds something to it. It's the detail, and as they say, the devil is in the details."

If you want to take your liver on another trip south of the border while staying north, the Paloma is a cocktail to add to your drinker's passport. A favorite of every drunken aunt partying at a quinceañera, it consists of tequila, Squirt and fresh lime juice served in a glass rimmed with salt. It's citrusy and refreshing and will lay you out on your ass if you're not careful.

"We figure if it's not broken, don't fix it," says Mikey Knab, general manager at Ponce's Mexican Restaurant in Kensington. They stick to the traditional ingredients at Ponce's, only with a heavy hand when it comes to adding Don Julio Reposado tequila. In fact, each Paloma comes in a pint glass with four ounces of tequila.

"Three is enough to put you to sleep," Knab jokes. "It's definitely party time at the bar with these."

The cucumber margarita at El Zarape Restaurant in Normal Heights is yet another Mexican drink that's as delicious as it is dangerous, thanks to its healthy tequila pour.

Manager Alfonso Guerra says it's made by muddling fresh cucumber with Tajín and fresh lime. They then add agave nectar to sweeten the drink, soda water and, of course, tequila and pour it in a Tajín-rimmed glass. All that's missing is a hammock and a sunny beach where you can pass out.

If you want to save yourself a two-hour (if you're lucky) border wait but want to wrap your lips around some quality Mexican cocktails, these drinks should have you covered. Maybe if you ask nicely, the bartenders will shake your head while blowing a whistle for a more authentic experience.

Write to alexz@sdcitybeat.com. You can also bug her on Twitter.


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