Hip ambiance elevates Mexican bar and grill
Namesake cocktails are just the beginning at Medford’s Las Margaritas Bar & Grill.
An attractive bar in the former location of Xilakil aims to produce craft cocktails, including margaritas that transcend the flavor of packaged mixes and texture of iced slushies. Prominently highlighted among its “craft margaritas” are grapefruit, honey and hibiscus flavors. An “elevated” margarita ($15) swaps top-shelf Patron silver for the standard “blanco” or “reposado” tequila.
Anyone craving a “classic” mango or strawberry margarita can scratch that itch for $12 apiece. There also are peach, pineapple and cucumber flavors. Such mainstays as mojito, michelada and paloma, along with “American classics” and draft and bottled beers, compose the rest of the drink list.
Leaving the grapefruit margarita ($13) to my partner, I gravitated to the “feathered coyote” ($13) for its tamarind-infused vodka. A straightforward combination of liquor, lime, bitters and simple syrup, the beverage was intensely thirst-quenching on the hot day. I only wish the wait for my jalapeno poppers had been shorter, so I could enjoy drink and appetizer together.
As we waited, my partner and I admired the restaurant’s sleek, modern interior, colorful prints of Mexican life and culture and other artworks. Not a trace of faux pre-Columbian kitsch anywhere.
The poppers ($12) came out alongside the two dishes we ordered as main courses: ceviche and chicken enchiladas de mole. Like most higher-end interpretations of Mexican cuisine in Southern Oregon, Las Margaritas emphasizes seafood with 15 items from $25 to $30.
While the combination plate still has a presence, it’s downplayed in comparison with a list of “small bites” — chile relleno, tostado, chilaquiles, wet tamale and chimichanga — served without rice and beans. A wet burrito and burrito California headlining the small bites section have counterparts in a half-dozen others listed elsewhere on the menu, priced from $16 to $18.
Or have your burrito as a “bowl” with choices of rice, beans, protein, garnishes and salsa for $14 to $18. There’s even a short list of burgers and “mexi-chili fries” juxtaposed with several soups and salads.
From the fairly standard selection of appetizers, my partner and I briefly considered the sampler of five best-selling items for $24. But while I would have welcomed flautas, taquitos and even a couple of chicken wings, I was less sold on nachos of quesadillas, filler foods that we can prepare at home. And plus I had my heart set on poppers.
Seemingly stuffed and breaded in house, the poppers’ hands-on preparation may have had something to do with their delay. A pale garnish of shredded iceberg lettuce didn’t lend much color to the plate. But the poppers were hot and fresh, containing molten cream cheese under a commendable crunch, the chile itself not too spicy. The accompanying ranch dip cooled the mild burn.
Also a study in browns and beiges, the plate of enchiladas de mole ($20) offered a generous scoop of bright pico de gallo, similarly portioned with the sour cream. Although ceviche is my partner’s favorite dish, one bite of the enchiladas — in their intensely flavored, slightly sweet sauce — had him hooked. He polished off almost an entire chicken-stuffed tortilla before offering to exchange plates.
I’d been just as enthusiastically plying the bowl of ceviche with shards of accompanying crisp tostada shells and some of our complimentary chips. For keto, grain-free and otherwise health-conscious diners, the dish’s contingent of cucumber wedges are a fresh, juicy and still satisfyingly crunchy vehicle for dipping. An entire avocado fanned across the plate added richness to the light fish and shellfish melange and constituted a significant aspect of the dish’s value.
The hefty price tag of $30 afforded the addition of octopus ($4) to the standard shrimp or cod, cured in lime juice and mixed with diced red onion, tomato, cucumber and cilantro. We actually asked the server if we could receive all three seafoods in our ceviche but were hard-pressed to decipher which was which in the uniformly, finely diced array.
The knife work alone, I commented, not to mention all the cucumber, avocado and even verdant lettuce leaves do much to justify the price. The reality of restaurants since the coronavirus pandemic is higher prices for just about every ingredient, especially seafood.
And a younger generation of Mexican restaurateurs realize that selling $10 burritos doesn’t keep them in business. Given that Mexican arguably is Americans’ favorite ethnic food, why not compete closer to the level of fine dining?
Wooed by the Las Margaritas ambiance, which my partner described as interesting and hip — a place where he’d just enjoy hanging out, we agreed we’d be back. The seafood quality was high enough that we’d consider another such entree, perhaps the shrimp cocktail, aguachile or campechana. The enchiladas de mole, though, were the best enchiladas we can recall trying in quite some time.
And Las Margaritas’ drinks go down so delightfully that we may have to order a second round next time. Happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday would be an ideal occasion.
Located at 1361 Center Drive, Suite 106, Las Margaritas is open 5-10 p.m. daily. A sign on the door advertises lunch service at 11 a.m., although the website margaritasmedford.com hasn’t updated its hours. Order online or call 541-622-8622.
Reach features editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4494 or firstname.lastname@example.org