New at Margaritas: Guaco Loco and Pepino Margaritas

I don’t consider myself a Mexican food expert, or even a Mexican food lover. Honestly, I have always found that most Mexican food is either too bland or far too spicy. I blame my narrow-minded opinion on the fact that I have lived exclusively in the Northeast about as far away from Mexico as you can get, while still being in the United States. The subtle nuisances of authentic Mexican cooking don’t seem to have penetrated the polar vortex.

Needless to say, I don’t normally choose a Mexican restaurant for date night. Between a one-year-old, two insanely busy careers, and not having a maid, we get a night out maybe once a month. When we do get to go out, I want it to be epic, and usually pick some Italian joint with stellar reviews. This month, however, date night fell on “National Margarita Day,” which naturally meant that the universe was trying to tell us that we needed to gorge ourselves on tequila and queso.

We arrived at the Margarita’s on St. John Street just as they were opening for food service. There was already a modest crowd in the bar, since happy hour starts at 3:00, but we were surprised about the lack of fanfare surrounding National Margarita Day. We thought surely we would be greeted with a billboard announcing the celebration of the restaurant’s namesake, but it seemed like instead, every day was “Margarita Day” here.

Margaritas St. John Street Portland

We were seated in the back section of the restaurant, surrounded by bright colored tiles and smiling, cherub-like suns painted on chair backs. Naturally, we started with a round of margaritas, one “Pepino Margarita” (8.79) and one “Russelrita” (7.49), a house favorite. It was easy to tell why the “Russelrita” is a favorite. This frozen concoction, featuring Baja Rosa tequila, tastes more like a liquefied strawberry Airhead candy than a margarita. It’s the kind of drink that sorority girls live for: goes down easy and gets you hammered fast, without having to taste all that alcohol. Where the “Russelrita” was fun and playful, the “Pepino” was classy and clean, a perfect blend of Sauza Blue tequila, muddled mint and cucumber, finished with habenero and lime. The scent of the “Pepino” was overwhelmingly fresh, the scent of fresh lime reaching you before your first sip. The balance of mint, cucumber and tequila cooled your mouth to just the right temperature before you got a subtle kick of heat from the habanero. I would have been happy to sit and sip this margarita all night, but we had seen some offerings on the board in the lobby that were calling our name.

Margaritas St. John Street Portland

For appetizers, we ordered a Mexican restaurant classic, the “Chicken Baby Chimis” (8.79) and the new menu item, “Guaco Loco” (7.49). The “Chicken Baby Chimis” were what you would expect from an American-Mexican restaurant, but of a much higher quality than you would expect. The chicken and cheese filling was mildly seasoned without any heat, suited to the palate of your typical New Englander. Not a knock-your-socks off dish, but one that would pair well with a group of friends a pitcher of margaritas. The “Guaco Loco” was a different story. From the second this touched down on our table we were excited. Alongside two freshly fried tortillas was a gorgeous handmade guacamole with chucks of fresh avocado, tomatoes and cotija cheese, topped with cayenne-roasted pecans.

The flavors and textures in this dish were perfectly balanced. The cool avocado and cojita cheese created a creaminess that was offset by the crunch of the pecans and tomatoes. It was apparent that fresh ingredients were used form the vibrant, distinct flavors of each component. The dish had an earthy, almost rustic flavor that made me think that I would gladly up and move to Mexico if all the food tasted like this. We found that the two tortillas that came with the dish were not enough to scoop up all the heavenly guacamole. We greedily moved onto plan B, using the pan of chips that they bring when you sit down, to pick up every last chunk. If we had been sitting in the privacy of our living room, we would have fought over who got to lick the plate.

Margaritas St. John Street Portland

The next dish we sampled was also a new offering, the “Mexican Corn Cakes with Slow-Braised Beef” (11.99). Initially, we were a little nervous about this dish. The Mexican corn cakes were sitting in a sweet, green tomatillo sauce, layered with slow-braised beef, salsa fresco, diced avocado, topped with a poblano creama. We were hesitant, expecting that there would be too many flavors competing for the spotlight, but we were pleasantly surprised to find out that rather than vying for the attention, the ingredients came together to create a cohesive dish. In fact, we found that each component likely wouldn’t have been able to stand alone. The corn cakes contributed sweetness to the dish as well as a velvety texture punctuated with a bit of grit from the cornmeal and crunch from the onions.

Margaritas St. John Street Portland

We expected the corn cakes to be dry and flaky, almost like a cornbread, but were thrilled by the moist, silky texture that we got instead. The beef was expertly braised and melted in your mouth. It was simply seasoned, with little to no heat. We both thought that if the beef were to stand alone it would be akin to a classic New England pot roast. The tomatillo sauce and salsa fresco brought an element of freshness and lightness to the dish. Both the beef and corncakes were robust and rustic; they needed these fresh elements to keep the dish from being too heavy. It was evident that the chef put a ton of thought into the creation of this offering, which we appreciated.

Margaritas St. John Street Portland

Overall, we were extremely happy that we stepped out of our food box and hit up Maragaritas for our date night. We talked about the “Guaco Loco” and “Pepino Margarita” for days and can’t wait to get back to try the rest of the new dishes. Where I was afraid of bland or overly spicy dishes covered in melted cheese, I found well-balanced flavors and textures accompanied by tasty margaritas worth coming back for.

Photos: Kasey Ahlquist

Kasey Ahlquist

My love affair with food began on stepstools in the kitchens of the women in my family. Handing my great-grandmother carrots to grate for coleslaw, licking the beaters covered in my grandmother’s peanut butter frosting, and watching my mother cook up Italian dishes covered in cheese. To this day, I love cheese. Besides cheese, I love painting, ocean air, and the smell of tar after it’s rained. My husband Josh and I have created a little suburban farm with our Layla-Bug, a ridiculously hyper dog, and a one-eyed chicken. Someday, we hope to upgrade to a real country farm.

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