You don’t need to be from Mexico to love Mexican food and decor. The Mexican culture is vibrant, energetic, and colorful, and the Mexican people love to gather over food and drinks with family and friends. In my home state, Texas, Mexican food and its regional cousin, Tex-Mex, are inescapable. There’s no way to grow up in Texas without enjoying a margarita paired with chips and salsa. In fact, that’s a favorite happy-hour combo!
I don’t know about you, but I almost always want to recreate food and other dining experiences when I return home from vacation. To create my own Mexican-style happy hour after a visit to San Antonio, I turned to the Cortez family, owners of the popular Mi Tierra restaurant and several others located in San Antonio’s historic Market Square.
The Market Square area dates to an original land grant from the king of Spain. San Antonio developed as a city of squares, or plazas, and markets. In her book, The History of San Antonio’s Market Square, historian Mary Ann Noonan Guerra writes that “Don Juan de Acuna, the 37th Viceroy of New Spain, ordered that there were to be ‘squares, parks, and plazas for the people … for their use and entertainment.’” The first of these markets developed in the 1700s!
The Cortez family opened their first restaurant, Mi Tierra, on Market Square in 1941. Their restaurant La Margarita, also in the Square, is known not only for its delicious margaritas but for developing the first fajitas. The owners generously supplied me with mucho inspiration and some of their family recipes. Now, I will share them with you.
Here’s how to host your own Mexican-style happy hour at home.
Note that I was hosted by Hotel Valencia. All opinions are my own.
Mix Up Some Delicious, Authentic Margaritas
The Cortez family gave me the recipe for their frozen margaritas, which can be made in a variety of fruit flavors. The secret ingredient is the fresh fruit puree. Mango is the most popular, but you can substitute any fruit you’d like.
The three main varieties of tequila are Blanco (unaged), Reposado (aged up to one year), and Añejo (aged for one to three years). Añejos are dark in color and are typically sipped neat, like a nice liquor or Scotch whisky.
If you’re uncertain which type to use for these frozen drinks, go with the Blanco, which is a very basic tequila. You only want top-shelf tequila if you plan to sip it straight or mix it into a more classic margarita-on-the-rocks recipe.
La Margarita’s Frozen Mango Margarita
- 4 ounces mango puree
- 1 ounce tequila
- 1 ounce triple sec
- 1 cup ice
- 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
Directions: Blend all ingredients until smooth. Pour into a chilled glass and enjoy!
Pro Tip: Make it San Antonio-style and add a chili rim or drizzle the inside of the glass with chamoy before pouring in your margarita.
Consider Serving Agua Fresca
If you want to offer something in addition to margaritas, this spiked agua fresca is divine! Made with fresh watermelon, it is a refreshing option that’s perfect on a hot summer day.
Spiked Sandía (Watermelon) Agua Fresca
- 6 cups cold water
- 4 cups watermelon, seeded and cut
- 1/2 cup simple syrup (more or less to taste)
- 1 ounce tequila
- 1 ounce Deep Eddy Lime Vodka
- lime wedges for garnish
Directions: Add diced watermelon, simple syrup, and 3 cups of cold water to a blender. Blend until smooth. Then, using a mesh strainer, strain juice into a vitrolero or pitcher. Add the remaining cold water, and sweeten with more simple syrup as needed. Pour 1 cup of agua fresca over ice, and add 1 ounce of tequila and 1 ounce of Deep Eddy Lime Vodka. Stir, and garnish with lime wedges.
Pair Your Happy-Hour Drinks With Fajitas
Happy-hour drinks should always be served with chips and salsa or chips and guacamole. However, if you’d like to serve something more substantial, you can’t go wrong with fajitas.
George Cortez took a trip to Monterrey, Mexico, in 1981. While there, he dined at a restaurant called El Regio, where he ordered a plate of arrachera, or skirt steak. The skirt steak was very flavorful, but not very tender, and it was served with rice and beans. George thought it would be a good idea to marinate the skirt steak overnight (for flavor and tenderness), grill it to perfection, cut it into strips against the grain, and serve it sizzling on a hot griddle with onions and peppers — creating what we now know as the fajita. He brought this concept back to San Antonio and introduced it at La Margarita. Today, visitors can order beef, chicken, shrimp, vegetables, and just about anything else in their fajitas.
To keep your homemade fajitas simple, serve them on a big platter with a basket of tortillas, and let your guests build their own plates buffet-style.
Don’t Forget To Decorate
To make your happy hour look truly south of the border — or at least San Antonio — add some simple table decor. Dress up your tabletop by adding a colorful tablecloth or table runner, or substitute a Mexican blanket. A vase of paper flowers or some small potted cacti would be inexpensive and add a pop of color. Don’t forget to include a small bowl of quartered limes!
Mexican glasses with colored rims look pretty and are very traditional. Colorful baskets can provide a quick and easy reminder of old Mexico. Add some merengue music, and your guests will soon be dancing.
Pro Tip: When you’re in San Antonio, be sure to visit the stores located in Market Square to shop for glasses, pottery, and other Mexican-made items to enhance your table setting and make it even more special. Most of the vendors have been in Market Square for decades.
Travel To San Antonio For A Taste Of The Real Thing
If you’re planning to visit San Antonio to experience the Cortez family’s delicacies for yourself — and you should — I recommend that you stay on the historic San Antonio River Walk for the ambience and convenience.
I stayed at the Hotel Valencia, a 5-minute walk from Market Square and in close proximity to everything else on the River Walk. This section of the River Walk is much quieter than you might expect, and you won’t often have to contend with pedestrian or street noise.
The warm terra-cotta colors of this hotel on the River Walk were inspired by the Spanish influence on the city of San Antonio. The hotel restaurant and bar include a beautiful broad terrace overlooking the river. Inside, arched doorways add to the old-world atmosphere.
Better yet, the Hotel Valencia makes the River Walk accessible to people of all mobility levels. There’s an elevator near the reception desk that will take you not only to the River Walk level, but also to the street level and to the bar.
For more inspiration for a San Antonio visit, check out these articles:
- 6 Excellent Things To Do In San Antonio, Texas
- 10 Fantastic Outdoor Activities In San Antonio
- 8 Big Texas Experiences To Have In San Antonio
What To Know Before You Go
San Antonio has an almost year-round tropical climate. It can be hot — usually in the 90s in the summer — and very, very humid. If you’re not used to the weather, it can quickly take a toll. Drink plenty of water. You can bring your own water bottle, or simply plan to stop often at the many cafes along the River Walk. Wear sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat. Long sleeves and fabrics with SPF built in are also good choices. You will do a lot of walking, so comfortable shoes are a must.
It is said that every Texan has two homes: the place where they were born, and San Antonio. What better recommendation do you need to plan a visit? If that’s not in the cards at the moment, invite some friends over for mango margaritas and enjoy a Mexican-style happy hour at home.