Gulp Of Mexico

By Jason O’Bryan / Photo by Sara Norris

Few things in this world go better together than tequila and sangrita. Like peanut butter and jelly, and Bert and Ernie, the two are nothing alike, yet they are perfect complements.

Tequila, with its peppery/vegetal flavors, acidic bite and agave sweetness, is cleansed by the savory heat of the sangrita - a customary tequila accompaniment that translates to “little blood.” In San Diego, nobody does tequila and sangrita quite like they do at University Heights’ inimitable temple of the agave, Cantina Mayahuel.

“It’s pretty much blended salsa,” says owner Larry Auman, whose tomato-based sangrita boasts more than a dozen ingredients including soy sauce, Worcestershire and garlic. Cantina Mayahuel practically bleeds authenticity, but on this point they stray from strict tradition, as the original sangrita was made without tomatoes.

“It dates to the 1920s,” says Auman. “They’d make a kind of fruit salad and save the juice at the bottom to pair with the tequila.” Early sangrita was often comprised of orange, lime and pomegranate juices spiked with ground peppers for heat. But, much like the staff at Abercrombie & Fitch, it diversified over time.

“It’s just like mole,” Auman says. “Now there are 80 million recipes.”

These millions of recipes can be broken down into three distinct groups: the juice-based/old-school style, which is hard to come by; a grotesquely sweet, pre-bottled perversion comparable to tomato candy (yum!); and a savory yet refreshing variety like the one found at Cantina Mayahuel.

The Mayahuel sangrita is a muted orange-red, like sun-bleached terra cotta. The soy and Worchester offer a distinct salty richness, while the acidity from the orange and lime juices balance with the savory tomatoes, garlic and onion. It’s a palate cleanser with an enormous flavor profile, and works seamlessly as either tequila’s opening act or its curtain call.

Chasers don’t get a lot of respect in the bar world, but sangrita is different: it’s like tequila’s wingman, there to point out all its best aspects, and then disappear at closing time. Friends don’t get much better than that.