It's no longer a new idea to take tequila seriously. New York's self-respecting cocktail bars all default to pure spirits and fresh juice for their margaritas (sorry, Mr. & Mrs. T), and plenty are even straight-up altars celebrating the art of agave appreciation. At Teqa, Murray Hill's new tequileria and taqueria, the vibe is part tequila temple and part homage to happy hour: it offers up the goods without the gravitas.
A joint venture between Lisa Schoen, recently Derek Jeter's private chef, and Derek Axelrod, a member of the family behind French Connection, Teqa feels like a slick, shiny proof of concept for a tequileria chain. Standing beside the tequila chandelier and mirrored walls lined with menu highlights, it's not hard to imagine a Teqa twin cropping up somewhere near a row of progressive slots. The dark wood room is split into bar and dining area, where after work (and pre-club) crowds commune over mushroom quesadillas ($9) and chorizo-laced queso fundido ($9).
Several signs announce that no mixto is kept on the premises, indicating that every one of the 100-plus bottles behind the bar are made from pure agave. It's a long, strong list of tequilas meant for savoring, not suffering through. (That's not to say you can't opt for a quicker route—if the other wall signs are to be believed, anyone requiring great booze for their body shots is officially in luck.)
The cocktail program kicks off naturally with margaritas, available by the glass or pitcher. There's a pretty, aromatic Hibiscus & Rose ($11) version and a Spicy Cucumber ($11) spin that incorporates veggie puree into Tanteo Jalapeno tequila; I started simple with Tommy's Margarita ($9), a clean, strong classic built with El Jimador Blanco and finished in Maldon salt. It's bright and tangy the way a margarita should be, with a sweet hit of agave nectar that helps make sense of the densely salted rim.
My margarita order was met with a nod, but diving further into the signature drinks list elicited a eye-roll from the bartender: "Ah, the girly drinks." He wasn't far off the mark for the Leyenda ($13), a tequila-based cousin of the cosmo. The drink takes lovely, aromatic Mejor Blanco and smothers it in Cointreau, St-Germain, lime juice, smashed ginger, and white cranberry, then saddles it with a fat lemon wheel. The effect is as you'd expect—sweet, fruity, admittedly easy to drink—and uninteresting on the whole.
I fared better with the Voodoo Child ($13), a shaken cocktail of Corzo Reposado, vanilla, maple syrup, pressed pineapple, and lemon juice, topped with grated nutmeg. Less blunt-force than the Leyenda, this citrusy mix bears a complex but cohesive stripe of warm, tropical spice notes.
The prettiest of the bunch, the Rosita ($13), turned out to be a full-blown miss. The cocktail puts Milagro reposado and apricot brandy over a peach bitters-soaked sugar cube, all topped with Prosecco. Served in a flute with a tiny apricot, it plays like a bland Bellini, with the flavors continuously sapping one another of their powers.
The Rosita's flatness makes the case for sticking with Teqa's margaritas. Besides, they make the best companion to Teqa's Taco Bar ($12 for 3, $42 for a dozen), whether you go Old School (hard shell with ground beef and three cheeses) or opt for the lean, citrus and jalapeno-flecked Grilled Tilapia version.
In the end, the best way to get the most out of Teqa might be to focus on snifters and sipping glasses, tasting through its collection of heavy-hitting agave-based spirits on their own. It may not be the most inspired or original setting, but after a few strong pours of Mejor Blanco, that won't matter in the least.