Friday, January 19, 2018
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Tampa Bay's best tequila bars: More than worth their salt

In 2008, you'd be hard-pressed to find a local bar with a massive tequila selection. When Red Mesa Cantina opened, even it had fewer than two dozen tequilas on hand.

Today, Red Mesa Cantina has a selection of more than 200 tequilas, plus a big list of mezcals and rich after-dinner tequilas called bajativos.

Customers in this market have a thirst for quality tequila, says general manager Peter Veytia, which is why Red Mesa Cantina has evolved and expanded its tequila menu, even as more and more tequila-centric bars pop up around Tampa Bay.

"Not everyone knows tequila," said general manager Pete Veytia. "A lot of people are intimidated by it."

That doesn't have to be the case, and Red Mesa Cantina has gone out of its way to prove it. It has a menu of tequila flights, pairing three 1-ounce pours for one singular experience — including a popular "Patron Challenge," designed to prove that when it comes to fine tequilas, marketing isn't everything.

Today, Red Mesa Cantina remains one of the best tequila bars in Tampa Bay, with both a massive selection of sipping tequilas and tequila-based cocktails. Their house margaritas are made in batches and served via tap, but for an additional $2, you can upgrade to a hand-made marg with a better-quality tequila. And lately, they've been experimenting with mezcal cocktails. Mezcal has a bold, smoky flavor, but it's delightfully presented in the Oaxacan Summer Cocktail, combining mezcal, passion fruit and orange juices, grenadine, mint leaves, agave nectar and orange bitters.

Up the road sits St. Petersburg's Taps & Tequila, an indoor-outdoor cantina near Tropicana Field. It'd be a great beer bar on its own, with some 30 craft beers on draft and another 50 or so in bottles. But we're here for the tequila. In addition to a few super high-end choices (got $70 lying around for a shot of Don Julio Real?), T&T infuses a number of tequilas in-house with flavors like mango, sweet pepper, cucumber cilantro, Red Hots candy and "Champagne Blueberry." The flavored tequilas put neat twists on the bar's cocktail menu — try a Night Night Termite, with Don Julio Blanco, Nolet's Dry Gin and coconut juice — but are equally worth trying on their own.

If you're flush with folding money, head up to Clearwater's Besa Grill, which opened last fall. Their dark, cozy, ultra-stylish bar devotes much of its menu to tequila, with helpful explainers about each style (blanco, reposado, anejo and ultra high-end reservas) for novices. It's gotten a lot of attention for its inventive margarita menu, which features couture flavors like cucumber cilantro, guava habanero, cactus pear, elderflower and blackberry mint. The best part: They're all available for just $5 on Wednesdays (a significant break, since they normally run $9.50). For the truly curious, Besa Grill also offers a portlike "dessert tequila," Don Malaquias, for $10. Served in a snifter, it's got a body so thick it'd have to buy two seats on Southwest. The smell is powerful and the taste is intense, like spice cake doused in maraschino cherries.

In St. Pete Beach, you won't find a better tequila selection than at Agave, whose big, salty, handcrafted margs start at $5 and creep up from there, depending on your flavor, label and vintage. The cozy restaurant has delicious, authentic Oaxacan-influenced fare to pair with your drink, but you'd do well just to sit and sip while noshing on chips and salsa. The best part: Owners Nina and Richard Madison also own Pappy's Liquors next door, so if you like what you taste, head next door and order a bottle to take home.

Down at the Don CeSar Beach Resort, Sunsets Tequila Bar gets extra credit for thinking beyond the margarita, a common stopping point for many bars. Have you ever had a Cilantro Julep (Corazon blanco, cilantro, fresh lime and pineapple juice)? Or a Ginger Rogers made with tequila instead of gin? Sunsets' tequila cocktails involve ingredients ranging from chocolate to hibiscus syrup to aperol foam. Pair one with tapas or a cigar from the menu, and you're set for the weekend.

In Hillsborough, Carrollwood's new Senor Tequila — the second outpost of a restaurant in Winter Springs — is worth checking out. Situated in the corner of a strip mall, the vibe is far from tropical, but the shelves are lined with pricey anejos like Corzo, Partida and Casa Noble. You can even get Blue Head, a label based in Tampa. Stop in during happy hour or on Tuesdays, when the big, fruity house margaritas are just $2.99.

Last but not least, there is The Lime, a sexy-Mexy SoHo hotspot with a fair array of tequilas and some solid specials, like the $5 margs starting at 5 p.m. each Monday. But the bar's most famous drink is its notorious "Margarona," a 24-ounce Corona-margarita hybrid. The Lime also throws one of Tampa Bay's best Cinco de Mayo parties — and really for most people, isn't that what tequila is all about?

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