From the outset, Mariano Martinez's restaurant, the place that put frozen margaritas on the map, was an experience. Then called Mariano's Mexican Cuisine, the original was located in Dallas' Old Town shopping center, a 5-minute ride from Southern Methodist University. Inside, Mexican music piped through the dining room and blue lighting simulated moonlight. Sorority sisters wearing skirts and gaucho hats worked as greeters. The floor was covered with inexpensive shag carpeting, and at the end of service, employees used yard rakes to clean up fallen tortilla chips. The house specialty was the margarita.
It was 1971 — the same year that a coffeehouse called Starbucks opened its doors in Seattle and just a year after Texas passed a constitutional amendment making liquor by the drink legal. Prior to that, it was a "brown bag state," meaning customers could bring a bottle of alcohol to a restaurant as long as they kept it in the bag, off the table. As Mariano explains on a recent phone call, people would order a "setup," like Coke over ice with a lime, and pour their liquor of choice — usually whiskey or rum — into the mix.
Growing up in Dallas, Mariano's parents owned a restaurant called El Charro. Occasionally, Anglo customers would show up with a bottle of tequila — a gift from a neighbor or a souvenir from a recent vacation — and no clue what to do with it. His father, who had spent time working at a "high-dollar" speakeasy in San Antonio, would suggest a margarita.
When Mariano opened his own restaurant, he repurposed his father's recipe, with fresh lime, 100% agave tequila, Cointreau (rather than lower shelf triple sec), simple syrup, and a salted rim.
After a drink at the cantina, customers would take their seats at white-tablecloth tables in the dining room and were waited on by servers wearing jackets and bowties. Like a good cocktail, the formula was simple, but the result was greater than the sum of its parts. Mariano's was an instant hit.
With time, the restaurant would become a Dallas institution — the invention of the frozen margarita machine only added to the legend.
* * *
On a sweltering Texas evening on the cusp of August, I visit Mariano's restaurant. The Dallas location, now called Mariano's Hacienda Ranch, has since moved to nearby Northeast Dallas and is one of five locations. Like the pick-up trucks and the ten-gallon hats, the sheer size reminds you you're in Texas.
The interior looks like a cavernous hunting lodge with log walls, wagon wheel chandeliers, and a small ecosystem of taxidermied animals mounted in the dining room. It's spaghetti Western elegant, or as Google describes it, "caballero-chic." Front and center is the horseshoe bar and the prized frozen margarita machines. While we wait for our table, we order a round of margaritas and I notice the hat-tips to Martinez's invention — a golden margarita statue, plaques sharing the mythology: "The World's First Frozen Margarita . . ." Beaming customers stop to take pictures alongside.
My machine-poured margarita is served in a tall, slender cocktail glass. It's icy cold, the perfect balance of tart and barely sweet, and the tequila is present but not aggressively so. "Potent but polite," in Mariano's words, and I have to agree. It disappears easily.
Mariano explains, "I'm the fourth generation in my family to be in the Mexican restaurant business, and back in my parents' and grandparents' and great-grandparents' day, they had to serve spaghetti and meatballs and fried chicken and chicken fried steak to survive."
Instead of catering to Anglo tastes, Mariano doubled down on his family's recipes — like sopa de albóndigas, carne asada tampiqueña, and enchiladas suizas — but adding his own special twist. "I established a higher quality of everything. For example, the cheese — instead of just buying whatever cheese was the cheapest, I would buy Wisconsin cheddar in 40-pound blocks that had to be aged from 30 to 90 days. And I bought a certain kind of beef, 80% lean and 20% fat, with a special grind for chili."
Mariano's was serving top-notch Tex-Mex staples before the term "Tex-Mex" really existed. According to Texas food historian Robb Walsh's The Tex Mex Cookbook, the term didn't appear until the 1970s.
As Mariano tells it, many American restaurateurs wanted to distance themselves from the Mexican label altogether, projecting onto it a negative connotation. Instead, they marketed their food as "Spanish" or "Sonora-style." But with his restaurant, Martinez embraced it. Some customers started to believe Mariano's was more Mexican than actual Mexican food. He remembers, "They'd say, Mariano, we just got off of a jet airplane from Alcapulco and we're coming to get some real Mexican food and some real margaritas."
* * *
Here's where the myth comes in: During a crushing service, the bartender couldn't keep up with the frozen margarita orders. The blender was broken. The bartender's hands were cramping from squeezing lime after lime. A customer complained about the inconsistent cocktails. Mariano was desperate to find a solution. Cut to a quick stop at the 7-Eleven (another homegrown Dallas invention, by the way), where Mariano spotted a kid pulling a frozen drink from the Slurpee machine — the moment of inspiration. What if he could use a Slurpee machine for his margaritas? "I feel like the idea came from God," Mariano tells me.
He ended up buying a used soft-serve machine and tinkering around until it poured big batches of his father's frozen cocktail recipe. Problem solved.
The frozen margarita machine made Mariano famous, but the fact that he managed to get the restaurant off the ground was a small miracle in itself. He was turned down by 11 banks before finally convincing one to give him a loan. I ask him how he managed to muster so much confidence in his idea — at the tender age of 26, no less.
"I would think it was more persistence than confidence. And perseverance," Mariano told me. "Go back to my school days. My family was doing just well enough to move into an all-white neighborhood, and I suffered a lot of racism and bigotry."
Growing up feeling like an outsider stoked the flames of determination. "So yes, I believed in my ideas, but also, where else was I going to go? I wanted to be known for something. I wanted to be somebody."
Mariano took his heritage, the Mexican restaurant business, and ran with it.
* * *
I ask Marc Ramirez, a Dallas-based writer who has covered cocktail culture for the Dallas Morning News, why Mariano's creation was such a hit.
"The frozen margarita machine was one of those Texas innovations that found the right audience in the right climate. The flavors — bright, tart, sweet — are perfect for a hot day; add alcohol, put it on ice, and it's even better. The margarita also has a storied, geographic connection to Texas that makes it beloved to people here; so does tequila," Marc wrote in an email.
It was only a matter of time before the frozen concoction caught on. Mariano tells me, "I started getting all these write-ups in the newspapers and interviews on television, and then people started getting their own margarita machines." His invention popped up in bars and restaurants all over the country, and pretty soon, the world. And, as often happens, the original formula was diluted.
Over the years, frozen margaritas have developed a bad rap, particularly within serious mixology circles. Marc explains, "Frozen drinks have a way of masking flavors, so they're easier to 'cheat' on if a restaurant or bar is looking to cut corners. That said, a frozen margarita made with fresh, quality ingredients can be really good — and of course even more outstanding on a patio on a balmy afternoon."
Mariano never patented his invention, but he doesn't regret it.
"I think ideas should be shared," he says. "Right now we're in a pandemic, and I think if anybody comes up with an idea that could help us, they ought to share it with the world, and not try to get a patent and make a bunch of money on it."
* * *
This year marked the 50th for Mariano's restaurant and his invention. The original machine now sits on display in the Smithsonian, right next to Julia Child's kitchen. Mariano has become somewhat of a local celebrity. He's even appeared on Jimmy Kimmel alongside fellow Texas hero Tony Romo.
Tex-Mex has gone from marginalized to celebrated. Mariano has undeniably had a hand in that.
I travel to Texas regularly to visit my sister, who's lived in Dallas for over a decade. Like venturing to a foreign country, I've grown to expect the chance to experience a whole new cuisine, including Tex-Mex. This most recent visit felt different because, for obvious reasons, I hadn't seen my sister in two years. I wanted to squeeze as much quality time from each day, each meal as possible.
By 6 p.m., in the shade of the spacious patio, my barely-there makeup melty as nacho cheese, we were ordering a round of tequila shots for the table — a digestif for the slow-roasted brisket tacos, the enchiladas, and the queso with fresh serrano peppers. I was no longer thinking about the heaviness — of the heat or the fact that I didn't know when I'd be back. We were catching up and grazing on the final broken tortilla chips and having a great time. And that, maybe, is the secret ingredient to Mariano's success.
"Chips and salsa and margaritas — it's like the instant forget-about-it. A woman once told me: 'No matter how the day begins, as long as it ends with a Mariano's margarita, it's a good day.'"