For More Refreshing Tasting Tequila Cocktails, Just Add Heat—Seriously

Chef Claudette Zepeda puts a smoky spin on two classics, and shares the best dish to serve them with.

May  2, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food & Prop Styling By Alexis Anthony.

We've teamed up with Don Julio, makers of top-shelf tequilas since 1942, to highlight creative (yet totally doable!) ways to shake up your cocktail game. Here, Chef Claudette Zepeda shares two spring-ready tequila drinks with a smoky twist—plus, a vegetarian-friendly riff on al pastor tacos to serve them with.

In my mind, you can never go wrong with a margarita.

I'll always be loyal to the classic version—just tequila, fresh lime juice, orange liqueur, agave, and don't forget the salted rim—but I'm always game to mix things up and try something new. Especially now that I have more time to spend in the kitchen than usual, and a few virtual happy hours on my calendar.

Enter: Chef Claudette Zepeda. The Top Chef alum and James Beard Award semifinalist recently shared two riffs on classic tequila-based cocktails that I'm already looking forward to making this weekend.

Photo by Rocky Luten. Food & Prop Styling by Alexis Anthony.

Up first: a charred red pepper and strawberry margarita that's vibrant, refreshing, and surprisingly easy to pull off. The trick is to roast the red pepper and strawberries over an open flame (yep, you can carefully use your gas stovetop) to impart a rich, smoky flavor.

Simply blend them with a simple syrup, then shake up that blended mixture with the rest of the ingredients—most of which you'll likely find on your bar cart—and strain. Easy? Check. Impressive? Double check.

Smoked mandarin juice plus zingy ginger is another pitch-perfect combo Claudette concocted—this time in a paloma, which typically calls for tequila, grapefruit juice, soda water, lime, and occasionally a dash of sugar.

If you don't have a smoker, don't worry. Plain mandarin orange juice works just as well; you can also try giving the orange slices a quick sear in a hot skillet to somewhat recreate the smoky effect before juicing. Can't find mandarin oranges at all? Not a big deal, either, says Claudette. Regular orange juice with a splash of lemon juice is an easy swap—you just want to make sure the flavor is nice and tart.

But the real secret to pulling off both cocktails? Using the best-quality tequila you can get your hands on. "It opens up the nuances in the cocktail ingredients, similar to what salt does to food," she says. In these recipes, good tequila is enhanced—and not distracted by—the other flavors.

If you're looking for a dish to pair with one of these drinks, tacos are a surefire bet. And Chef Claudette has yet another riff on a classic, just for the occasion: pineapple and plantain al pastor tacos.

In this vegetarian-friendly rendition of the grilled-pork favorite, she swaps in tangy-sweet pineapple and ripe plantains for the pork, but keeps the punchy marinade that's traditional to the dish (made with guajillo chiles, achiote paste, chipotles in adobo, and white vinegar). You start by searing the fruit on a cast-iron pan (or the grill), then you coat it in the marinade and finish it off over the heat for a few minutes. The whole process is super speedy—we're talking under an hour from start to finish. It's up to you how you want to garnish the tacos, but I like to go all in with red onion, a squeeze of lime, crema, cilantro, and crumbled queso fresco.

The last choice you need to make? Margarita or paloma. You know what I'd pick.

What cocktails are you mixing up at the moment? Tell us in the comments below!

Our friends at Don Julio have been producing a range of top-notch tequilas—made with 100% pure Blue Weber Agave—in Jalisco, Mexico since 1942. Keep their Blanco Tequila, with a crisp agave flavor and hints of citrus, stocked in your bar cart for mixing up all kinds of cocktails, from classic margaritas and palomas to these creative riffs from Chef Claudette Zepeda.

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Erin Alexander is the Brand Partnerships Editor at Food52, covering pop culture, travel, foods of the internet, and all things #sponsored. Formerly at Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness, Us Weekly, and Hearst, she currently lives in New York City.