A little sangrita is good for the soul

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I was having dinner at a Mexican restaurant in a suburb of the New York state capital of Albany a few weeks back, chowing down on some authentic ethnic food (several of the cooks are from the beautiful Mexican city of Guanajuato, where I've enjoyed some excellent meals), when I decided to request some sangrita to go with my tequila.

"We don't have sangria," said the waitress, referring to the fruit-and-wine punch.

"No, not san-gree-AH," I replied. "San-gree-TAH -- to go with my tequila."

She hastily corraled a bartender who told me that, while they didn't usually have sangrita, he'd whip some up for me. Now, that's service.

Sangrita is to tequila drinkers what garlic is to Italian chefs. Important. At heart, it's a combination of tomato juice, orange juice, peppers and hot sauce. Most of the time. What I got at Pancho's was that particular bartender's version. In various visits to Mexico, I've had maybe four other versions. All are basically tomato juice that's been tweaked, but arguments over what you tweak it with are sometimes akin to arguing about how to make the perfect martini. Particularly after a few tequilas.

(A self-interruption: A word about drinking tequila. I am bored to tears with people whose opinions of the iconic Mexican spirit run along the lines of "I got sick on it in college and never tried it again." Drink enough of anything, including water, and you'll get sick. Besides, much of what anyone drinks in college is rotgut because that's what you can afford. Plus, college drinking tends to be for purposes of show-and-yell, rather than for the pleasure of the drink and the company in which it is consumed.)

But, back to sangrita, Spanish for "little blood." Like most tequilas, it is served in a small glass called a caballito (cab-ah-YEE-toe). The most common way to drink it is to have a sip after a couple of sips of tequila. The bite of the non-alcoholic concoction nicely complements its companion, each helping bring out the best in the other.

My own recipe for sangrita has a V-8 base, rather than plain tomato juice. I like the additional vegetable notes, and make it three parts V-8 to one part orange juice, several grinds of fresh cracked black pepper, and liberal shots of Tabasco jalapeno sauce. Shake well, refrigerate and serve well chilled.

Other people add clam juice, or minced chile peppers, Tabasco or Worcestershire sauce, fresh lime juice ... . As noted, there really is no one way. Like a Virgin Mary cocktail, which it resembles, sangrita is in the eye of the beholder.

A tip when ordering or making a completo, the Mexican term for a set of sangrita and tequila: Do NOT serve a cheap tequila. Look for one that is 100% blue agave, the premium grade of a wonderful spirit that increasingly is being appreciated on the world stage rather than just in Mexico and border areas.

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