In Albert and Ferran Adria’s “A Day at El Bulli,” a visual ode to the avant-garde Catalonian restaurant that closed in 2011, the reader learns that a cocktail course was not uncommon in the early stages of a 30-course tasting. Sometimes, that cocktail was a frozen margarita.
The recipe was strikingly complicated; it involves placing margarita “frappe” into custom ice molds, topping the mixture with salt-air foam, and finishing things off tableside with shaved Himalayan rock salt. There’s something wonderful about such complexity, about knowing that one of the world’s most famous restaurants served a drink whose origins, it is believed, trace back to a humble Mexican-American restaurant in San Diego, California. And there’s something equally sad about how New York’s best restaurants, Mexican or otherwise, tend to shy away from the frozen ‘rita.
If a Michelin-starred restaurant like Cote can get away with froze being its signature cocktail, I’d say chefs like Daniela Soto-Innes have a bit of space to play around in the frozen drink front. So for now, while walking through New York feels like wading through a sloppy bowl of gumbo, I drink my frozen margaritas at Vida Verde, which opened last July in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a venue where this icy beverage remains perfect without any sort of posh upscale-ification.
The frozen margarita, to be fair, is also a cocktail whose consumption evokes images of shirtless humans engaging in the type of spring break hedonism that should not technically exist in a smartphone era. It’s a cocktail whose most prominent product placement was in a run down Texas trailer in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 (not quite a James Bond martini). It’s a cocktail one won’t find at, say, Empellon Midtown, Cosme, or Casa Enrique. And that’s too bad because it’s a preparation whose core notes of salt, agave, and citrus can be manipulated into breathtaking shapes, flavors, and textures.
One thing to keep in mind: Vida is the type of Mexican restaurant where you might walk by one night and find a DJ with over-ear headphones, spinning to a packed house of revelers. Hanging on the walls are photographs of pretty people posing in Dia de Los Muertos face paint, drinking blue cocktails. The environment tips its hat to Tao, which is to say it selectively views another culture through the exaggerated prism of a never-ending, English-speaking, Bud Light “up for whatever” party.
On other nights — most nights quite frankly — it’s pretty chill inside, which is to say no DJ, no dancing. So you grab a seat at the bar and order a margarita. The mixture, a blend of fresh lemon and lime juice, Goza blanco tequila, cane syrup, and Combier orange liqueur, is piped out of a frozen margarita maker — a cocktail device of such import that the first one ever, a modified soft-serve machine developed by Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez in 1971, now sits inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Beverage director Lucas Wilde makes the drink in batches, letting the mixture chill in a 40-gallon cooler, where it’s then force fed into a smaller, 10-gallon mixer.
A machine-produced margarita typically has a smoother mouthfeel than a blender version; the Vida Verde cocktail, however, borders on silky, with almost none of the ice crystals that are vaguely noticeable in, say, Dos Caminos’ excellent margaritas. In fact, the closest textural parallel would be a movie theater Icee, except this drink is markedly colder. The tongue stings from the chill; it recalls the nitro burn of Dippin’ Dots. A few sequential sips causes blood vessels in your cranium to rapidly dilate and contract, creating a massive, momentary headache.
Drinking a Vida Verde margarita is the gustatory version of shoving your hand into a bucket of ice water and leaving it there until the pain becomes unbearable. Some might argue the temperature detracts from the drink. I’d counter that it’s an essential point of contrast to our sweltering schvitz of a city. I’ve rarely left the restaurant without having two.
The temperature and acidity acts as a solid foil an order of tacos with fatty, smoky chorizo on soft corn tortillas or an order of “personal nachos,” which must be a bit of an inside kitchen joke because those nachos, heavy with sour cream and cheese, are big enough feed three. But really, the margaritas stand alone. They cost $14 each, and I’m calling them a BUY.