Experimenting during pandemic lockdown leads to a winning cocktail inspiration.
By Emma Roberts as told to Zagat Stories
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Cointreau.
The Original Margarita has been around for 70 years, and is made with three simple ingredients: Cointreau, tequila, and lime. But there are so many twists to The Original Margarita that we decided to search the nation to find the best of the best. Bartenders from around the country have submitted their takes on this classic cocktail. The Infatuation judges, along with the public, have chosen the Top 3 Margaritas in the nation.
Emma Roberts is the general manager of Porta Via restaurant in Calabasas, California. While the restaurant was closed during lockdown, she began experimenting with cocktail recipes on her Instagram and YouTube channel. That led to the creation of the Passion in Paradise Margarita, which became the restaurant’s most popular cocktail and won Best Margarita of the West in Cointreau and The Infatuation’s Margarita Nation.
Passion in Paradise Margarita
3/4 oz. Cointreau
1/2 oz. agave
2 oz. 1800 Coconut Tequila
1 oz. Chinola Passion Fruit Liqueur
1 oz. fresh lime juice
1/2 a passion fruit
2 dashes orange bitters
I’m a level one sommelier, but I’m not a professional mixologist. I’m a general manager at this restaurant. I wanted to study, but I was so anxious through the whole lockdown process. Like, “I’ve got to be creative. It’s killing my brain.”
I came up with the original Passion in Paradise over Cinco de Mayo in 2020. It was two months after we shut down for COVID, and we had another COVID-safe couple over. Back when I first got together with my boyfriend, he had three bottles of liquor. Two-and-a-half years later, he has a full bar and three counter shelves full of liquor. He’s like, “Oh my gosh, where is this coming from?” I know it’s all from me, so I was like, “I got to get rid of some of this stuff.”
So for Cinco de Mayo, you’re thinking tequila. I had passion fruit, mango, and star fruit in the refrigerator. I love 1800 Coconut Tequila, and I love Cointreau. A friend had introduced me to Chinola Passion Fruit Liqueur. So I started experimenting. I did several versions.
From then until a little over a year later, I finessed it into the recipe that is now the Passion in Paradise. I’ve experimented with dozens and dozens of liquors since then. It’s been really fun becoming a whole bartender, educating people, sharing with people. There have definitely been some flops, but the Passion in Paradise was very successful.
We all pitch in for the menus for the bar. Every quarter, all the bartenders will submit something. When the Passion in Paradise won this contest, I put that on the menu—I wrote right underneath the title “Winner of the Cointreau Infatuation Best Margarita of the West.” The sales for it were already so crazy high, but then they doubled.
In fact, my liquor sales have completely flipped. It used to be all wine during lockdown. Now it’s mostly liquor. People just want to sit at a bar and have somebody make them a cocktail.
When it comes to cocktails, we try to use as many organic items as possible. Nothing is mixed. Everything is juiced every day, with lots of California flavorings. It’s quite a process, but it’s worth it. Can I deliver a cocktail in two minutes? Most of the time, yes. But talk to me in the middle of a Sunday night when I have one bartender on, and he has a full bar. I’m back there slinging cocktails with him, too, and we’re both sweating it out together to deliver to a full restaurant and the bar seats as well.
We have a lot of fish on our menu that pairs well with the Passion in Paradise. We have a delicious branzino and a sea bass. We have a parmesan-crusted halibut, and a salmon that is just divine. It’s an Ōra King salmon sustainably raised in New Zealand. A lot of people order this drink with our guacamole and chips, and then they’ll just keep ordering more chips and more drinks, which is good. It’s a fun afternoon starter drink.
I would really love to try a seasonal Passion in Paradise for the fall. Maybe it’s something a little less sweet and more herbal, more vegetal. I would really love to work with some prickly pear by that time. My Cilantro Margarita is also pretty popular on Youtube, though I don’t have that one on the menu yet. I once made a Bubblegum Mojito that took a lot of work and that was really wild. It tasted like drinking bubblegum. Was it good? If you really like artificial flavoring, yeah. If you don’t want diabetes, then no, it’s probably not a good thing. But it was fun to make.
From the pandemic though, people’s attitudes have definitely come out a lot stronger. People are just extra sensitive. What I have found is that they just want to be heard. I had this hot-tempered mom and her family come in yelling that she made a reservation a month ago. It’s in the middle of a Sunday night, and I don’t have any room for her. I see that somebody accidentally canceled her reservation. So I’m like, “Just relax. I promise I will take good care of you.” And when people hear “I’m going to take good care of you,” everything shifts in their eyes. They’re like, oh, somebody is going to pay attention to me, and I’m going to have a better experience. So if I can deliver that in a timely manner, I usually always win the battle. The goal is to build a repeat customer, and weirdly enough, a lot of our repeat customers began as super-challenging guests.