Drink Local: Where to Celebrate National Margarita Day

February 21, 2015 § 1 Comment

Yep, it’s that time of year again: Sunday, February 22 is Margarita Day. I don’t know about you, but that’s a national holiday in my house! Get yer drinkin’ shoes on and get ready to celebrate the sweet-tart agave-cocktail deliciousness that is The Margarita. Actually, the third weekend in February is National Margarita Weekend. Not sure how we went from Margarita Day to Margarita Weekend (or who decides these things), but I’m not about to argue. A well-crafted margarita is one of life’s joys — especially when you can indulge on a sunny February afternoon with your nearest and dearest (or maybe just some super-fun folks who share your love of this summery drink).

Puebla Margarita at La Fiesta in Mountain View

Puebla Margarita at La Fiesta in Mountain View

If you’ve been around these parts for a while (650Food, that is), then you know I love my margaritas. Of course, enjoying margaritas comes down to enjoying tequila — and if you don’t, then what’s the point? Sure, a bad Jose Cuervo experience could have put me off the agave spirit for life (not that I know anything about that sort of thing), but learning about the nuances and flavor profiles of tequila has made all the difference. Closest analogy? If you’re a scotch whisky drinker, then you’ll likely appreciate a well-made tequila, particularly an aged tequila, such as a reposado or anejo. As I’ve said before: good ingredients are the starting point of a good cocktail.

Often I’ll find a tequila that just hits all the right flavor notes, and then figure out which additional components — citrus, berry, spice, liqueurs, and syrups — will help it shine through in a cocktail. I’ve written about a few of my home-bar favorites, which incorporate tequilas that have a local or regional connection: a Spicy Cucumber Margarita that uses jalapeno-infused Tres Agaves and a seasonal Blood Orange Margarita that uses Campeon.

But what if you don’t want to DIY when it comes to enjoying margaritas? What if you want to let someone else do the work, while you kick back and enjoy? Don’t worry, 650Food has gotcha covered with hands-on research and a roundup of some of the best places to get ya ‘rita on. Just to keep things even, I assembled a list of “must haves” for a quality margarita experience in the 650:

  • Broad selection of tequilas: Natch. Hey, the cocktail experience is just that much nicer when you can choose your favorite brand.
  • Variety of margaritas on the menu: Not everyone’s palate is the same, so let’s make sure there’s a little something for everyone. At a minimum, I’d like to see a classic, something sweet or tropical, and something spicy.
  • Fresh, hand-made margaritas: No frozen concoctions or jug pours, thanks.
  • Snacks: Whether it’s chips and salsa or ahi poke, you’ll want something to nosh while you imbibe.
  • Bonus — Outdoor seating: Hello, it’s the 650, and we have great weather! Why not get out and enjoy it with your Margarita?

If you’ve got a favorite margarita spot in the 650 that you want to share, post to the comments below or on the 650Food Facebook page. Happy Margarita Weekend!

Best for Old-School Mexican Restaurant Vibe: La Fiesta (Mountain View)
La Fiesta is a classic; it’s family-owned and has been around since 1977. It’s not fancy, but the service is warm and friendly, and the margaritas are spot-on. The Margarita menu divides La Fiesta’s cocktails in The Classics! (exclamation point included!) and “Have You Been to…” in which cocktails are named after Mexican cities and regions.

Arturito's Margarita at La Fiesta in Mountain Vew

Arturito’s Margarita at La Fiesta in Mountain Vew: I don’t know Arturito is, but he makes a damn good margarita!

Be sure to try Arturito’s Margarita (Cazadores Anjeo, fresh lime, sweet & sour, and triple sec), which is a nicely balanced, tasty cocktail that’s served up in a martini glass.

If you want a more “classic” style margarita, go for the Puebla: Corralejo Reposado, Cointreau, sweet & sour, and fresh lime.

What: La Fiesta
Where: 240 Villa St, Mountain View, CA 94041
Phone: 650-968-1364
Hours: Mon–Thu 11am–2pm and 5pm–9pm; Fri 11am–2pm and 5pm–10pm; Sat 11am–10pm; Sun 11am–9pm
Parking: Lot and street

Best for Fun, Contemporary Cocktails: Milagros (Redwood City)
You want variety? You got it! Milagros lists their cocktails by taste, so if you’ve got a hankering for tart, sweet, or spicy, Milagro’s servers and bartenders can point you to the right spot on the menu or offer suggestions. (The only outlier here is “Specialties,” which is a bit of a catch-all.) You like spicy? Then try the Mexican Hipster: El Jimador blanco, jalapeno, muddled cucumbers, lime juice, organic agave and a splash of soda. Balanced and flavorful, you’ll want another round of this one!

Two favorites from Milagros: The Mexican Hipster (spicy) and Blood Orange Margarita (tart)

Two favorites from Milagros: The Mexican Hipster (spicy) and Blood Orange Margarita (tart)

Love blood orange? Make sure to try the Blood Orange Margarita (seasonal)! Made with Espolon Reposado, muddled blood oranges, and cold pressed citrus juices, it hits that fine mark between sweet, juicy orange and tart rind. Want something closer to a classic margarita, but with a twist? Then try the Capella: Cazadores Reposado, Grand Marnier, lime, orange, and red ruby grapefruit juices.

Milagro's Capella: Like a cross between a Margarita and Paloma

Milagro’s Capella: Like a cross between a Margarita and Paloma

What: Milagros Cantina
Where: 1099 Middlefield Road, Redwood City, CA 94062
Phone: 650-369-4730
Hours: Mon–Fri 11:30am–10pm; Fri 11:30am–10pm; Sat 11:30am–10pm; Sun 11:30am–9pm
Parking: Street or public lots (pay)

Best for Having It Your Way: Fiesta del Mar Too (Mountain View)
Fiesta del Mar Too has an extensive, almost dizzying, list of tequilas (200 or so!) and margarita variations. Just so you know, most of the margaritas that are on Fiesta del Mar Too’s menu are of the “classic” variety. No hipster variations with housemade bitters or St. Germain liqueur here! If you can imagine your favorite combination of tequila, orange liqueur, and lime, Fiesta del Mar’s bartenders can make it.

The house margarita is made with El Jimador Silver and Triple Sec. I opted for The Stallion (yeah, baby!): Corralejo Anejo, Cointreau, and fresh lime. (FYI: the drink is typically made with triple sec, but I upgraded to Cointreau for a dollar extra.) You can’t go wrong with any margarita on the menu, but for tequila lovers and aficianados who want what they want, Fiesta del Mar is the place. Just be aware that some substitutions come with a small upcharge.

Oh yes, I did! The Stallion at Fiesta del Mar Too: Corralejo Anejo, Cointreau, fresh lime

Oh yes, I did! The Stallion at Fiesta del Mar Too: Corralejo Anejo, Cointreau, fresh lime

What: Fiesta del Mar Too
Where: 735 Villa St, Mountain View, CA 94041
Phone: 650-967-3525
Hours: Mon–Thu 11:30am–9pm; Fri 11:30am–10pm; Sat 12pm–10pm; Sun 12pm–9pm
Parking: Lot behind the restaurant and street

Best for San Francisco Style without Leaving the 650: Tacolicious (Palo Alto)
Tacolicious, known for interesting cocktails and fresh, street-food-style tacos in its Mission and Marina locations now has an outpost in Palo Alto. The space is open, contemporary, and bright, with outdoor seating right on Emerson. The cocktail menu skews more to the new/contemporary style. My favorite, hands down, was the Nopal: Don Julio Blanco, prickly pear, citrus, and a touch of agave. You have to try this one!

Not just a pretty face, the Nopal is probably Tacolicious' best margarita!

Not just a pretty face, the Nopal is probably Tacolicious’ best margarita!

The drink is perfectly balanced between sweet and tart, while letting the tequila shine through. (Thanks to bartender Noelle for her recommendation!) The classic Margarita de la Casa and tropical Mucho Gusto (Pueblo Viejo Blanco, pineapple, coconut water) are also popular choices, according to the bar staff.

What: Tacolicious
Where: 632 Emerson Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301
Phone: 650-838-0500
Hours: Sun–Wed 11:30am–10pm; Thu 11:30am–11pm; Fri–Sat 11:30am–midnight; Sun 11:30am–9pm
Parking: Street or public lots

Best for Sitting at the Bar and Watching the Game: The Office Bar & Grill (San Carlos)
It can be a challenge to find a neighorhood sports bar that serves a well-made margarita — a place where you can sit at the bar, watch the game, and enjoy American classics, like Chili Cheese Fries or a BLT. Fortunately, The Office is just that kind of place: a spot where you can enjoy a casual bar experience and indulge in a tasty margarita. The cocktail list isn’t as extensive as, say, Fiesta del Mar Too’s, but The Office covers the basics: spicy (“The Office” Margarita), sweet (The Interview from Hell Margarita), and tropical (Hibiscus Margarita).

The Office Margarita: if you like jalapeno and cucumber, this your drink.

The Office Margarita, served on a Bud Light coaster.

I took my bartender’s recommendation for The Office Margarita, a flavorful, spicy mix of Cazadores tequila, muddled jalapeno, cucumber, fresh lime, triple sec, and sweet and sour. While The Office Margarita is spicier than Milagro’s Mexican Hipster on the back palate (the spice lingers), it’s still a balanced, fresh-tasting cocktail. Enjoy this one with an appetizer or sandwich from The Office’s food menu.

What: The Office Bar & Grill
Where: 1748 El Camino Real, San Carlos, Ca 94070
Phone: 650-598-9740
Bar Hours: Mon–Wed 11am–midnight; Thu–Fri 11am–2am; Sat 8:30am–2am; Sun 8:30am–midnight
Parking: Lot or street

Drink Local: Finding Your Bliss

February 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

It’s 3pm, and you’re looking at a jam-packed few hours between now and dinner time. Maybe you’ve got back-to-back meetings or are shuttling the kids to and fro — or a combo of the two. How about a caffeine fix to get you through the rest of the day? If you work or live near downtown Redwood City, take a break from the chain coffee shops and check out the new kid in town: Bliss Coffee on Broadway.

Find your bliss on Broadway in Redwood City

Find your bliss on Broadway in Redwood City

Owners Jimmy Huang and Kevin Lei are local guys who have made good on their goal to create a San Francisco-style coffee shop on the Peninsula. The shop, which has been open since September 2014, is a light-filled space with a modern aesthetic. While the shop’s modern look, ample seating, and free wi-fi might appeal to San Francisco-based commuters, it’s the coffee that’s bringing local customers back. During a recent visit, I had a chance to chat with Huang, who says that business is growing, and that they’ve had “a positive response from the community.”

Bliss is all about making and serving great coffee, and that starts with the beans. Huang and Lei have partnered with local and regional roasters who work directly with coffee growers to forge relationships that emphasize sustainability, as well as fair labor and wage practices. Currently Bliss serves coffee from Verve (Santa Cruz), Chromatic (San Jose), Four Barrel (San Francisco), and Temple (Sacramento). Good inventory management is essential for creating flavorful, fresh coffee, so Bliss orders only what they need and keeps their beans no longer than 10 days.

The guys trained with the Four Barrel folks to hone their barista skills and can turn out your favorite drink with an artistic touch. Customer favorites and most-ordered drinks include espressos, lattes, and cappuccinos. Lately they’ve been getting more requests for the newly popular Flat White, too. Customize your drink with the usual dairy milk options, or go non-dairy with almond or soy milk. Want to really treat yourself? How about an affogato (espresso shot with vanilla ice cream from Palo Alto’s Tin Pot Creamery) or a Nutella Latte.

Yes, you read that right: Nutella Latte, a latte with a scoop of Nutella. Coffee + chocolate + hazelnut + steamed milk = (dare I say it?) Bliss. Oh, and if you need any more incentive to try this liquid treat, today is World Nutella Day…  just sayin’.

Nutella Latte: Coffee, steamed milk and a SCOOP of Nutella

Nutella Latte: Coffee, steamed milk, and a SCOOP of Nutella

If you’re not a coffee drinker, don’t let that keep you from visiting Bliss Coffee! Housemade non-coffee drinks include an assortment of freshly made Republic of Tea teas, iced barley tea, their own VB Pop (vanilla bean-infused syrup and sparkling water), and a TCHO hot chocolate worth trying.

Better get there early! It's slim pickin's after 2:30

These tasty treats go quickly; get in early if you want your favorite

While drinks are the draw, you won’t go hungry at Bliss. The pastry case is stocked with daily deliveries of sweet and savory pastries from the East Bay’s Starter Bakery, including quiches, tarts, and cookies. During a recent visit I treated myself to a seasonal pear tart that was just delish: red-wine poached pears, frangipane, and toasted almonds in a crisp tart shell.

Seasonal fruit tart from Bliss' pastry case

Seasonal fruit tart from Bliss’ pastry case

Huang says that, going forward they’d like to include pastries from a Peninsula-based bakery, and possibly gluten-free options, but so far the challenge has been finding a local business that can keep up with demand and deliver fresh pastries every day. (Any 650 bakeries up to the task? Raise your hands!)

Drinks and eats are all available to go, so you can get your Bliss on the run. Of course, if you’ve got a little time on your hands, order your favorite drink, find a sunny spot, and indulge in a few moments of quietly catching up on email or just watching the world go by.last-shot

What: Bliss Coffee
Where: 2400 Broadway Street, #110, Redwood City, California
Phone: 650-260-4356
Hours: Mon–Thu 7am–6pm; Fri–Sat 7am–5pm; Sun 8am–4pm
Parking: Street (meter)

Have you discovered Bliss Coffee? What’s your favorite drink? Share in the comments below.

Drink Local: Chocolate Indulgence

February 3, 2015 § 3 Comments

Been feeling guilty about that daily chocolate fix? Shaming yourself for that afternoon craving? Stop it, I say! February is National Chocolate Month, a time to come out loud and proud and treat yourself to luscious, creamy, chocolatey goodness — every day, if you must.

Where to start? Well, if you let the folks who create the those fun food holidays guide you, this past weekend saw two back-to-back chocolate holidays: National Hot Chocolate Day on January 31 and National Dark Chocolate Day on February 1. And that got me thinking: I’m not a coffee drinker, but a mid-afternoon pick-me-up of rich, dark, drinking chocolate with steamed milk could be my new sumpin’-sumpin’. Hot chocolate on a sunny California day? Why not!

Afternoon indulgence: TCHO hot chocolate at Kingston Cafe

Growing up in The Snow Belt, I associated hot chocolate with freezing temperatures, snow suits, and  making snow angels. Hot chocolate wasn’t an everyday thing at my house during the winter. There had to be real snow on the ground — not some “dusting” or a couple of inches. Nope, it had to be the kind of snow that closed schools, created drifts, and had dads cursing while digging the car out.

The hot chocolate of my childhood was powdery, packaged, mostly-sugar “cocoa” with mini marshmallows brought to life with hot water. (Thanks, mom!) We used the terms “hot chocolate” and “hot cocoa” interchangeably, but I’m not sure that much actual chocolate or cocoa powder was involved. It didn’t matter though, the packaged mixes were easy for moms to make and gave cold, wet kids who’d been playing in the snow for hours enough sugar to keep going until dinner time.

During the past decade or so, the rise of premium and super-premium chocolate brands here in the US, coupled with café culture, has brought richer, tastier, and more interesting options for hot-chocolate beverages. Most cafés that offer an assortment of coffee drinks can customize your hot chocolate with steamed milk (dairy, nut, soy), flavored syrups, and whipped cream. How about this: Fair-trade, organic chocolate with steamed almond milk, a shot of vanilla bean syrup, and a dollop of whipped cream. Definitely not your mom’s hot chocolate!

So, where in the 650 can you find luscious, chocolatey indulgence-in-a-cup made your way? Good question! While the chain coffee shops would be a place to start, I’m a fan of supporting local businesses. I set out to find neighborhood-based coffee shops or cafés that are using good-quality ingredients to make a creamy, satisfying chocolate beverage. Taking a cue from Goldilocks, I was looking for something that was just right: not too watery, not too milky, not too sweet, and not too hot. (What’s up with serving ridiculously hot drinks that come with a warning?) And of course, it had to have a rich chocolate flavor — preferably from dark, natural cocoa powder or high-percentage chocolate.

Below is my list of small, neighborhood spots in the 650 that make a tasty hot chocolate beverage. To keep the comparisons equal, I ordered a “classic” hot chocolate — just chocolate and steamed milk (either whole or almond) without any extras.

Back Yard Coffee Company (Redwood City, CA)
This funky spot between the train tracks and El Camino is popular with locals and commuters alike. Seating is random (mismatched couches and chairs), wi-fi is free, and the baristas are friendly. The vibe is comfortable, but the place stays busy. Coffee is obviously the focus here, but Back Yard has a chocolate drinks menu that includes Sipping Chocolate, Hot Chocolate in two sizes, and a Kid’s Hot Chocolate.

They make their hot chocolate with a healthy dose of Ghiradelli dark chocolate syrup and steamed milk of your choice (dairy, soy, or almond). You can also add syrups or whipped cream for an additional charge. If you’re looking for a sweeter, old-school style hot chocolate, Back Yard has what you need. The barista did a nice job of steaming the milk and delivering the drink at the perfect temperature.

Ghiradelli hot chocolate at Redwood City's Back Yard Coffee Co.

Ghiradelli hot chocolate at Redwood City’s Back Yard Coffee Co.

Price: $3.50 (small), $3.75 (large), $2.75 (kid’s)
Non-Dairy Milks: Almond and Soy, $0.50 extra
Get Fancy: Syrups, Whipped Cream, $0.50 extra each

Bliss Coffee (Redwood City, CA)
Open a little more than four months, Bliss is the new kid in town among Redwood City coffee shops.  Light and bright, with a modern decor, Bliss focuses on putting out great coffee. They also happen to make a fine cup of hot chocolate.

Committed to using local ingredients, Bliss has chosen Berkeley-based TCHO chocolate as the base for their hot chocolate. The flavor is slightly roasted and chocolatey, with just a hint of sweetness — what we used to call “bittersweet.” Get your hot chocolate with steamed dairy, almond, or soy milk. I went with almond milk for this one because Bliss uses Califia, which is California-made and just plain delicious. The foam was beautiful and luxurious, and the temperature of the drink was just right.

Rich hot chocolate made with local and regional ingredients at Bliss Coffee in Redwood City

Rich hot chocolate made with local and regional ingredients at Bliss Coffee in Redwood City

Price: $3.75
Non-Dairy Milks: Almond and Soy, $0.50 extra
Get Fancy: Vanilla Bean or Lavender Syrup, $0.50 extra each

Kingston Cafe (San Mateo, CA)
Tucked away at the end of a strip mall, across from Shoreview Elementary School, Kingston is a full-service café that offers an assortment of house-made sandwiches in addition to their extensive drinks menu. The space is open and light with free wi-fi, cushy couches for relaxing or reading, and long tables for working. If I lived in this neighborhood, I’d definitely spend time here; it’s got a friendly, comfortable vibe.

Like Bliss Coffee in Redwood City, Kingston’s owners have focused on creating delicious drinks made with high-quality coffee. And, like Bliss, they use TCHO chocolate (actual disks of melted chocolate) combined with steamed milk. Milk offerings vary depending on availability, but they typically have the standard assortment of dairy milks, soy, and almond — and oat milk when they can get it. Owner Carrie whipped up a generous, flavorful drink with a pretty foam top. Wanna get fancy? Add whipped cream or a flavored syrup — how about peppermint?

Afternoon indulgence: TCHO hot chocolate at Kingston Cafe

Afternoon indulgence: TCHO hot chocolate at Kingston Cafe

Price: $3.00 (small), $3.50 (medium), $4.00
Non-Dairy Milks: Almond, Soy, Oat (call ahead for availability)
Get Fancy: Syrups, Whipped Cream, $0.50 extra each

Timothy Adams Chocolates (Palo Alto, CA)
If you LOVE chocolate or want lots of choices when it comes to your hot chocolate, then get yourself to Timothy Adams Chocolates in Palo Alto. Their Sipping Chocolate menu lets you choose among six types of Guittard chocolate for a customized chocolate beverage that will have you doing the chocolate happy dance. With choices from sweet (31% cacao white chocolate) to the unsweetened (99% dark chocolate), Timothy Adams has a drinking chocolate for just about every taste. Not sure what to get? Co-owner Timothy Woods is usually on-site and can tell you about the different flavor profiles.

Milk options includes three kinds of dairy milk (non-fat, 2%, or whole) and two kinds of nut milk (almond, hazelnut). You can also choose whether you want your chocolate served hot or cold. If you choose hot, you can opt for the addition of a chunky marshmallow. I have to confess that the day I visited Timothy Adams to try their hot chocolate turned out to be unseasonably warm, and a cold, frothy chocolate drink sounded too good to pass up. I’m sure my 65% Machu Pichu Peruvian single-origin with almond milk is just as delicious hot as it was cold.

Cold sipping chocolate at Timothy Adams served in a cute bottle with colorful straw

Cold sipping chocolate at Timothy Adams served in a cute bottle with colorful straw

Price: $4.50
Non-Dairy: Almond, Hazelnut
Get Fancy: Add a marshmallow to hot drinks

Tootsie’s (Palo Alto, CA)
This tiny café on the Welch Road side of Stanford Barn serves breakfast, lunch, and a full drinks menu. With plenty of outdoor seating, it’s a lovely spot to while away a sunny winter afternoon with an indulgent warm drink. Tootsie’s doesn’t get fancy with their hot chocolate; they serve one version. According to the staff, it’s made with chocolate chips and steamed milk; you can choose soy or dairy milk. It is, hands down, the most decadent drinking chocolate I’ve experienced on the peninsula.

Ultra-rich hot, hot chocolate at Tootsie's in Palo Alto

Ultra-rich hot, hot chocolate at Tootsie’s in Palo Alto

Reminiscent of hot chocolate I had in France many years ago, Tootsie’s version is thick, dark, and oh-so-rich; it’s dessert in a cup. I loved the flavor and the richness (although you can order “half the chocolate” if you find it too rich for your taste). My only disappointment with Tootsie’s hot chocolate is that it was delivered to my table with a warning — “extremely hot,” according to my server. He was right — the drink was too hot approach right away and had barely cooled 15 minutes later. I drank what I could with a teaspoon, but would have enjoyed the drink more if it weren’t scalding hot. Next time I’ll ask for a cooler drink or a side of ice.

Price: $3.50
Non-Dairy Milks: Soy

So what’s you chocolate beverage indulgence? Share in the comments below on our Facebook page.kingston-empty

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