How Houston Made Margarita History (Plus, a Recipe!)
Dallas may have laid claim to the frozen margarita—indeed the very machine that served that first slushy concoction in 1971 is now enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution—but ownership of the on-the-rocks variety, arguably the Platonic form of the drink, remains up for grabs. Might Houston step into the breach?
Let us direct your attention to one specific OTR preparation, that which a waiter pours into a chilled martini glass from a plastic shaker, which is then left at the table. You know the kind—Pico’s Mex-Mex has been serving them for years. More to the point, owner/chef Arnaldo Richards pioneered this elaborate presentation production back in 1984, or so he says.
“They think they’re getting three margaritas,” chuckles Richards, referring to the illusion created by leaving behind the “extra” margarita. It puts a diner in the driver’s seat, allowing them to touch up their cocktail as needed. (This is only one part of the shaker margarita ritual, of course, the other being the inevitable fumbling of the strainer, after which you’re left to clean up puddles of margarita from your table or lap.)
For restaurants like Pico’s, the shaker margarita is as much a marketing technique as the parading of a sizzling comal of fajitas through the dining room, leaving a trail of lust-inducing smoke in its wake. Observing the spectacle, you suddenly want—no, need—a plate of your own. Same with the shaker marg. Richards says it was more or less a novelty in the beginning. “I would tell the guys, ‘don’t shake it to your table, shake it to the guys next door,’” he recalls. “The other table would start looking”—and soon order a round of its own.
The little plastic shakers were a hit. Such a hit, in fact, that diners quickly began stealing them.
“They were already stealing the shot glasses,” laughs Richards’s daughter, Monica, who now runs the beverage program at her family’s restaurant. “We gave up and just started printing Lo me robé de Pico’s on them”—I stole this from Pico’s. The restaurant considered doing the same with the shakers but then hit upon a more lucrative idea: charging $10 to take one home. “I still sell four to five a week,” says Monica. As for the original plastic shakers, Richards still has three of them, which sit enshrined in a private dining room—a Smithsonian of sorts for Pico’s memorabilia—at the restaurant’s new Upper Kirby location, where Richards et al moved from Bellaire last year.
These days, you’ll also find shaker margaritas across the street from Pico’s at Pappasito’s, across the Southwest at Chili’s, and across the nation at Cheddar’s. Regarding the diaspora, Richards tells us that the general manager of Houston’s very first Chili’s “was such a regular customer, I knew him by name.” The guy loved Pico’s shaker margaritas, ordered them frequently and, not long afterward, shakers were seen spilling onto the tables at Chili’s and elsewhere.
“A lot of innovations come from single-origin restaurants,” Richards muses philosophically. He doesn’t seem bothered by the co-opting, even when pressed. Doesn’t he want people to know the shaker margarita was his idea first? “No,” he demurs, looking stoic.
“He tells everybody!” laughs his daughter.
Recipe: Pico's Shaker Margarita
- 2 oz. top-shelf silver tequila
- 1½ oz. Cointreau or Grand Marnier
- 1½ oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice
Combine ingredients in shaker with ice. Shake well to mix. Strain into martini glass, with optional salt rim. “We use no sweeteners typically,” says Richards, though you lightweights can add 2 tsp. of agave nectar to the mix if you feel the need.