By Frank Sabatini, Jr. / Photos by Sara Norris
Sassy and sultry are the Latin cocktails that have shaken up American drink menus with their high-octane spirits skillfully disguised by citrus, herbs and occasional mantles of froth. While industry experts point to Latin libations as a red-hot trend, San Diego bartenders got ahead of the surge by perfecting the classics long before they escaped their native borders.
Women go gaga over white, creamy piña coladas, and men hardly ever order them, says Juan Carlos Ortega of Ortega's Mexican Bistro in Hillcrest, where they adhere to the original recipe made famous several decades ago at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The sweet and fruity drink blends white rum with strained pineapple juice and milky "piña colada cream" infused with coconut. A bright maraschino cherry adds the final element of froufrou, but don't be fooled by its innocent looks. ortega warns you'll feel the effects after drinking just two of them.
141 University Ave., Hillcrest
Brugal Santo Libre
Obscure in San Diego, though unavoidable in the Dominican Republic, the fizzy Brugal Santo Libre is a drink said to make you want to dance or make love, if not both. Onyx Room in the Gaslamp serves a version of the cocktail as a sexy cool-down perfect for after breaking a sweat on the dance floor. Dark rum, fermented from molasses, receives a lift from lemon-lime soda and fresh lime juice, resulting in a tall, uncomplicated refresher.
852 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp
Typically enjoyed in non-alcoholic form, the aqua frescas of Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico are traditional family drinks made with fruits, flowers and herbs. Bankers Hill's Barrio Star serves a tequila-spiked version of the otherwise innocuous drink that has the potential to leave guests chattering to the restaurant's Day of the Dead skulls. here, the standard sugar water flaunts mint and pineapple that kiddies will love; adults opt to have generous shots of tequila tossed in. While undeniably present, however, the booze hardly diminishes the punch-like beverage's luscious personality.
2706 Fifth Ave., Bankers Hill
The national drink of Cuba, which calls for white rum, superfine sugar and scads of muddled mint, is accurately domesticated at Pacific Beach's JRDN, although nobody complains when pomegranate or strawberry puree sneak into the drink. Whatever your request, the bartenders are adept at constructing the kind of sweet, herby mojitos that deliver a true taste of tropical havana to the PB boardwalk.
723 Felspar St., Pacific Beach
According to lore, the daiquiri was concocted during the Spanish-American War by American miner Jennings Cox, who was living in a small Cuban town named Daiquiri. After hooking the palates of locals, cox introduced the rum-based drink to top-rung military officers, and its popularity throughout the U.S. was soon embraced by the likes of Ernest Hemmingway and President John F. Kennedy. Gaslamp Speakeasy produces a modernized version of the drink, which calls for a blender and lets lime juice subtly dominate the simple syrup. Rum, however, still governs all the elements, even in modernized choices accented with fresh basil or grapefruit.
708 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp
Eighty-proof cachac?a (rum made from fermented sugarcane) joins forces with muddled limes and sugar in Brazil's almighty caipirinha, which helps fuel the colorfully (and scantily) dressed masses during the country's annual carnaval. At Lei Lounge in University Heights, the drink receives a california spin with the addition of muddled grapes, which augment the intense citrus blasts with a little extra juiciness.
4622 Park Blvd., University Heights
A gastronomic revolution is occurring in Peru, where an American expat first sparked consumer interest in the early 1920s by combining grape brandy (Pisco) with sweetened lemon juice. A Peruvian bartender later added egg whites and Angostura bitters to the now-famous Pisco Sour. The drink's latest incarnations, involving passion fruit and purple corn, are captured by bartenders at Encinitas ' El Q'ero Restaurant, where they take their cue from modern Pisco bars flourishing throughout Peru. The original
citrus recipe remains in the offing as a complement to contemporary Peruvian specialties like "hand-torn" chicken and caramelized plantains.
564 S. Coast Hwy. 101, Encinitas
Served in 16-ounce shakers with a base of Azul Reposado Tequila, the ultimate Margarita at Miguel's Cocina has been around since 1982, standing out among zillions of others because it's punctuated with the fruitiness of Grand Marnier, Cointreau and a fresh sweet-and-sour juice mix of limes and oranges. Miguel's slings about 15,000 of the margaritas each month from six different locations, including Old Town. Expect to get about two glasses per shaker.
2444 San Diego Ave., Old Town