Sometimes it’s hard to see eye to eye

It was one of those busy nights where everything was just humming along seamlessly — two vodka martinis over there, a mezcal mule, two drafts and a white wine (chardonnay) over there. Even the tall blond in the see-through chainmail shirt knew what was going on.

“A slightly dirty gin martini with cheese-stuffed olives” was all that needed to be said. And it was all that was said. And moments later, it appeared. Magic. The battle over who paid for it was left for another time because suddenly a man squeezed in between her and literally everyone else.

“I want a Manhattan, and a …,” he said, only turning to his companion once he had squeezed into the gap.

I stood there while their conversation went back and forth. I thought about telling them that she could speak directly to me. But I didn’t. Carl Jung once said, “We cannot change anything unless we accept it,” and so there I was accepting it.

“She wants a margarita,” he said, before breaking off his comment in response to a tug on his arm to turn back to her.

“A traditional margarita, but spicy,” he corrected when he turned back.

I took in the information given and noted the obvious contradiction between “traditional” and “spicy.” Instead of pointing out something so obvious, I decided to try a different tack.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what that means exactly.”

He half turned to his companion in the space allowed and another conversation ensued.

“You know, traditional.”

I am going to say it right here. There is no such thing as a “traditional” margarita. There are many interpretations as to what that means over the drink’s nearly 100-year history. I believe in Occam’s razor, which posits that the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. And since margarita means “daisy” in Spanish, and a daisy is a type of drink that includes a spirit, a citrus juice and a fruit syrup, that is what I said.

“Tequila, lime juice and triple sec?”

“No,” he said.

“No?” I responded.

“Traditional,” he said.

“I’m sorry, I still don’t know what that means.”

“Traditional like every restaurant everywhere does,” he said uncomfortably in his uncomfortable space.

Every restaurant everywhere? Now, I have worked in a lot of restaurants and I can tell you that sometimes even in the same restaurant things are done differently.

Back in the ’80s, I worked for two of the largest Mexican restaurant chains that ever existed in California: El Torito and Acapulco. Both had been founded in the first wave of the margarita’s popularity, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, back when tequila itself only had one style: blanco. Reposado (aged at least six months in oak barrels) would be introduced by Herradura in 1974, the same year that tequila became the official “intellectual property” of Mexico. Extra añejo (over three years in oak) was only introduced in 2006, and the origin of añejo tequila (one to three years in oak) remains weirdly indefinable, but presumably somewhere in between. Suffice it to say I have made a lot of margaritas in my career. A lot. Perhaps as many as a quarter million.

“Do you even know how to make a margarita?” he asked curtly.

I was rather shocked by the tone. It was like he was scolding a 10-year-old.

“I do, sir,” I said. “I have been doing this for 35 years.”

I probably shouldn’t have added that last part, but we all have our limits.

“Then, make one of those. And add chile liqueur to it.”

Another tug on the arm. And another hushed conversation.

“Not chile liqueur. Fresh chiles.”

Apparently traditional wasn’t even a universal construct between the two of them.

“Oh, and no salt,” he said after I set it down in front of him.

I transferred it into a non-salted glass.

Another tug on the arm and he turned back to me.

“Did you put Cointreau in it?”

Another non-salted margarita without Cointreau soon appeared.

And then there was another tug.

“Why didn’t you say that?” he whispered. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with limits.

“Did you put agave syrup in it?” he asked, quietly and far less curtly.

What we finally arrived at, after three tries, was a non-salted tequila and lime juice concoction with fresh chiles and a splash of agave syrup — certainly not traditional by anyone’s standards anywhere.

When he turned to leave, he lifted his Manhattan to me.

“The Manhattan was perfect, though.”

Leaving me with these thoughts:

‭• Colibree, a natural foods company, introduced the first-ever commercial agave syrup at the Expo West food show in Anaheim in 1995.

‭• Sometimes a woman in a see-through chainmail shirt is just a woman in a see-through chainmail shirt.

‭• A “perfect” Manhattan is actually equal parts dry and sweet vermouth.

‭• When I hear, “Can I order a drink?” I sometimes wonder, “I don’t know. Can you?”