Cinco in the City

From aged tequila to great guac, Manhattan has every fuel for Cinco de Mayo fun

Although far from the border, New York revels in all the festive flair of Cinco de Mayo as much as anyone has the desire and stomach for. From delicious food to salt-rimmed margaritas to straight-to-the-chase tequila tastings, celebrate this holiday without crossing any borders.

Mexican food comes in as many styles as by-the-slice pizza. For south-of-the-border Mexican, Rosa Mexicano (various locations) has been preparing dishes since it first opened here in 1984 before becoming an international chain. Tacos are served in cast iron skillets and guacamole is prepared tableside. The varied menu contains everything from a simple cheese quesadilla to lump crab enchiladas and spiced short ribs, but the atmosphere here is always consistent: festive, to say the least. For a more formal, quieter meal, El Toro Blanco (6th Ave. at Bleecker St.) gives a liberally upscale spin to classic Mexican dishes. Green chiles spice the queso fondido, fish tacos are made with swordfish and wild mushrooms, and Mexican street corn accessorizes grilled Maine lobster. Bright colors of a Mexican street fair fill the former; wooden tables reminiscent of a Spanish-style villa accompany ceviches and tamales at the latter.

A consensual favorite part of every Mexican meal is the libations, and especially those with a name as lovely to say as to sip: margaritas. Arriba Arriba (9th Ave. at 51st St.) makes notoriously good ones, though no one quite knows their secret. But they never fail to get drinkers a little extra giggly at its rambunctious West Side spot. Perhaps it is their size selection: from the four-ounce “El Bebe” to the 27-oz “La Mama.” Perhaps it is their flavorings of mango, blood orange, passion fruit and the rest of their tropical brethren. These aren’t to be sipped daintily; as the restaurant’s name suggests, these are meant to get good times rolling. On the other end of the spectrum, Pampano (49th St. nr. Lexington Ave.) – an award-winning, fine dining Mexican restaurant operated in part by famed opera tenor Placido Domingo – turns margaritas into a culinary experience. Best sipped in the spacious outdoor dining area, the simple drink is given complexity with ingredients such as hibiscus, fresh blueberry and peach, tamarind and grilled sugarcane with chipotle. Think of them as a new way to achieve creative consciousness.

Despite its adventurous reputation, when given a thoughtful approach, tequila tasting can have all the palatable complexity as sampling Scotch or Brandy. In the West Village, Agave (7th Ave. nr. Charles St.) offers tequila flights from a library-like collection about which servers are happy to introduce and educate newcomers. Lists of every category of the alcohol are index-like, for blancos (tequila aged two months or less) all the way up to extra-añejos (a minimum of three years) and everything in between, not to mention the mescals, sotols and specialty spirits. Tucked beneath the Hotel on Rivington in the Lower East Side, Viktor & Spoils (Rivington St. nr. Essex) offers a similarly comprehensive selection but in a less sit-and-dine setting. The best approach here may be to put oneself at the bartender’s behalf and let him or her pick from the wall of bottles behind them in accordance with preference. Given its location, young crowds tend to pack in for cocktails made with Mexican sodas on late nights and weekends, but the rustic, candle-lit subterranean watering hole derives some of its sophistication in being slightly unkempt. Some stomach-lining substance is never a bad idea to pair with tequila; go for the churros and dipping sauces.