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Dallas: Home of the First Frozen Margarita

Unless they’d been to Mexico, cocktail enthusiasts in the early ‘70s were not drinking much tequila, but then a Dallas cantina created an ingenuous drink contraption which changed the beverage scene forever.

Armed with years of restaurant experience and his father’s secret margarita recipe, Mariano Martinez launched his first dining destination in Dallas at the still-standing Old Town shopping center on Greenville Avenue (the restaurant itself is no longer there).

Filled with lively sounds of mariachi bands and colored with ornate Mexican murals and brightly costumed servers, the festive atmosphere created a collective thirst among patrons. The only beverage that seemed to be fit to imbibe at this fiesta-friendly hot spot: Mariano’s signature blended margaritas.

And imbibe, patrons did—so much that the overwhelmed bartenders couldn’t keep up; bottlenecks and traffic jams and long lines for the blender resulted in slower service, inconsistent batches of margaritas and complaints from guests. Martinez racked his brain to find a solution which would allow the bartenders to efficiently mass-produce his father’s impeccable recipe.

With a few mechanical upgrades, some inspiration from a 7-Eleven Slurpee machine and a little creativity, Mariano found his solution in a washed-up, soft-serve ice cream machine to quickly and efficiently produce higher volumes of consistent margarita batches, a priority in order to maintain quality control and the integrity of the restaurant’s signature drink.

Some told Mariano that the “frozen margarita” concept was scientifically impossible. “Alcohol doesn’t freeze,” they said. Other restaurant owners told him that drinks from a machine would never sell; customers wanted the romance of the bartender mixing and pouring their cocktails. But Martinez had seen the potential in the margarita for years, having watched his father make them time and time again. “I always knew there was magic in the drink,” he said.

Mariano's Frozen Margarita Machine
Mariano Martinez pours a frozen margarita out of the restaurant's famous machine. (Courtesy Mariano's)

The young restaurateur’s 6-ounce, machine-made margaritas poured into short-stemmed glasses sold for $1.25. Soon, diners flocked to Mariano’s from all over the Metroplex for the grown-up slushie, and the contraption quickly became a phenomenon.

In 2005, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History acquired one of the original machines, citing it as a symbol of “American invention and entrepreneurialism.” After months of investigating U.S. patent records and competing claims, Dallas native and Smithsonian curator Rayna Green—aided by a team of historians—confirmed that Martinez’s “cool creation” was indeed the first. It was this ingenuity that is hailed as the catalyst for popularizing margaritas and Tex-Mex food in the U.S. In fact, the museum ranked it among America’s top ten inventions—right up there with Edison’s light bulb.

“It replaced the martini in American drinking,” Green said.

The sister machine to the Smithsonian artifact, affectionately known as the “Maggie-Rita,” remains at its birthplace in Dallas, at the Old Red Museum’s permanent collection in downtown Dallas.

“Obviously, there are a lot of margarita lovers out there,” Green said.

Martinez knows this all too well, which is why his regional dynasty of restaurants serves seven flavors of margaritas, stocking all six dining establishments in DFW with more than 40 types of tequila. And the drink of choice for the frozen margarita machine father himself? “Papa’s Original Recipe,” Martinez confidently replied.

Today, Mariano’s Hacienda and La Hacienda Ranch has traded in its trendy vibe for a laid-back, fun and family-friendly atmosphere. It may lack the glitz and the glamour of its glory days of the 1970s, but Mariano’s has retained its high-quality standards, loyal clientele and museum-worthy drink recipe for almost 40 years—and that recognition is reason alone to raise your (margarita) glass. ¡Salud!

Mariano's Margarita
At home, Mariano makes his margaritas using his father's original recipe. (Courtesy Mariano's)