Signs of summer are everywhere across the state. The days are increasingly sticky-hot. The sun lingers a little longer each day. And watermelon margaritas have returned to Taco Mama’s restaurants across Alabama. With more than a dozen varieties on the regular menu at the beachy-casual chain, margaritas are one of the specialties at Taco Mama’s 23 locations, including 19 in Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
Watermelon was a natural choice when founder Will Haver started looking to add a summer seasonal margarita. He fondly remembered summer afternoons as a child, picking watermelons in his paternal grandparents’ home garden and stashing a couple in a cooler to enjoy that night. Since its introduction five years ago, customers anticipate the arrival of the watermelon special like it’s a pending summer vacation.
“Man, people love it,” Haver says in an email. “They are always asking when we are going to start serving the watermelon margarita.”
The drink generally shows up around Memorial Day and summers until Labor Day. The exact timing depends on when Alabama-grown melons—generally the Crimson Sweet or Jamboree variety—hit the perfect level of ripeness, Haver says.
Since his early-season watermelon source also supplies Birmingham-area Piggly Wiggly groceries, the Mountain Brook native and resident at first monitored the melons at his local store. When rapping his knuckles against one end produced the right sound, he figured the lot was margarita-ready.
“But I am not as good as my grandparents were by utilizing the thumping method,” Haver says. “(Now) our produce guys just let us know if we can get them consistently, and how pretty they are looking.”
Like most margaritas at the fast-casual restaurant, the summer special is hand-shaken and served on the rocks. It’s made by muddling watermelon cubes and adding blanco tequila, triple sec, simple syrup, and lime juice. A splash of soda and watermelon-wedge garnish finish the drink. Haver recommends ordering it with a sea-salt rim.
Haver developed a love for cooking from his mother and maternal grandmother and a love for restaurants working at Ezell’s Catfish Cabin in Tuscaloosa. After later working in the supply side of the food business and designing and opening a restaurant, Haver and investors bought the longtime neighborhood tavern, Otey’s.
(Taco Mama (Highway 119)/Facebook)
Looking for new opportunities, Haver decided to open his own restaurant. He modeled Taco Mama after beachside taco shacks he had seen in California and along the Gulf Coast. Tim Hontzas, a Birmingham chef who would go on to open Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, consulted with Haver on the menu. The tacos and other Tex-Mex-Baja dishes can be personalized with a large selection of toppings and salsas. Protein choices include braised barbacoa beef, flounder, pulled pork, chorizo sausage, and tofu.
If all that decision-making provokes a stomachache, ordering one of Taco Mama’s taco or burrito baskets requires only two choices – the main ingredient and a side.
The first Taco Mama opened in 2011 in Mountain Brook’s Crestline Village. Most stores are in greater Birmingham and the Huntsville-Madison area, with other state locations in Florence, Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Daphne, and Mobile.
Few foods shout summer in the South louder than watermelon. Now you can have your slice, and drink it too.