A Top-Shelf Tequila Bar
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, Feb. 6, 2004
Hidden in the rear of Old Centreville Crossing Shopping Center, Red Rocks Cafe and Tequila Bar doesn't seem any different than most suburban Tex-Mex joints. Cow skulls, red chili peppers and Native American dream catchers hang on the walls. A large dining area is surrounded by high walls and opaque windows to keep out some cigarette smoke. Colored tiles on the small bar's walls give it the air of a fast-food restaurant. You'd never guess that this low-key restaurant is ground zero for Northern Virginia margarita lovers.
The drink menu includes 10 specialty margaritas made with exotic fare like Cabo Wabo, a tequila from the company owned by former Van Halen singer Sammy Hagar, and Tarantula Azul, luminous blue tequila with a citrus taste. A large board on one wall lists 26 flavored syrups bartenders can add to Red Rocks' standard 16-ounce margarita, including passion fruit, grape, mango, or even banana or sangria. Of course, you can always just have one straight, frozen or on the rocks.
Tequila is the name of the game, and an array of colored bottles are displayed behind the bar -- about 50 in all. Prices range from $4 to a $49 shot of Herradura Seleccion Suprema -- although with its price and excellent taste, why anyone would want to slam Herradura is beyond me. Students of tequila can purchase half- or quarter-shots of the latter if they just want a taste, but most varieties cost between $5 and $8 for a hefty pour, and are served up with a red salt rim and lemon or lime.
"We believe that tequila belongs in a glass, straight up," Red Rocks owner Robert Evans says. "But you can't get away from people asking for 'top-shelf' tequila for shots." Many customers still think of tequila as something they drank in college to get drunk, Evans explains, so he tries to make bar visits an educational experience. "When I sell someone a nice shot of tequila, I tell them: 'Sip it first. Then you can shoot it.' " Evans's love affair with tequila began years ago when he worked for El Torito, a chain of Mexican restaurants in the Southwest. El Torito once boasted the country's largest tequila selection, reflected in signature drinks such as the Cadillac Margarita. Evans can still reel off the ingredients: Jose Cuervo 1800 tequila, Bols triple sec, Grand Marnier and Sunkist sour mix, "which you can't get this side of the Mississippi. And you have to shake it 20 times [to make it frothy]. That's very important.
"After I got addicted to that, I found Tres Generations Anejo," Sauza's dark tequila that's aged for at least three years, Evans says. "I fell in love with that. Then I discovered a product called Dos Reales. Then I discovered something else." And so on.
Red Rocks based its El Dorado Margarita on the classic Cadillac, and it's easy to see why someone would fall in love with it. It's simply a great margarita, served without secret ingredients or fancy additives.
Still, it's not the most popular on the menu -- that honor goes to the Jimmy Buffett Margarita. "When Jimmy Buffett put out his Margaritaville tequila a few years ago, I figured I had to make a margarita with it," Evans says. "I went behind the bar one day and said, 'I'm going to have the best drink I've ever had.' " Made with coconut syrup, orange juice and a twist of lime, it's shaken until frothy and smooth. Almost like a pina colada, it's very sweet but with a nice kick.
Aside from the tequila, Red Rocks is a neighborhood bar and restaurant with a good number of regulars who gather to play Golden Tee, grab a drink with friends or just decompress after work. One draw is the extended happy hour -- Monday through Thursday, there are specials from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., including $3 house margaritas, discounted draft beers (there are 11) and $2 plates of wings and nachos. Over my visits, crowds varied wildly. Sometimes the bar feels empty at happy hour, and then begins to swell after 8. On a different night, barstools are a precious commodity.
Acoustic performers, bands and weekly open mike sessions appear on a stage in the corner of the nonsmoking section. On the last Saturday of the month, the stage belongs to the Songwriters' Association of Washington. Between 7:30 and 11, the air is filled with the sounds of flamenco and blues, Irish and country -- all styles are welcome, as long as the song is an original composition. That can make the evening very uneven -- some of the tunes sound like works in progress, and not all performers are polished, though most musicians are generally solid.
Red Rocks just celebrated its fourth anniversary last month, and Evans says the key to its success is that "We just wanted to give the neighborhood something it was lacking." Margarita fans and local musicians would agree that Red Rocks successfully fills that neighborhood void.