F or many years, c.o.jones, the Mexican restaurant and tequila lounge in East Rock, has served a margarita called the Waborita, a portmanteau that pulls in the name of the tequila that’s in it, Cabo Wabo.
Unexpectedly enough, Cabo Wabo was created by Sammy Hagar of Van Halen fame. A few years back, Hagar got wind of how many Waboritas c.o.jones whips up each week (apparently a whole lot), and in a show of appreciation sent owner Bob Potter tickets and backstage passes to Hagar’s performance at Foxwoods Casino. Potter grabbed his longtime manager and bartender, Karl Evans, and headed to Ledyard to shake hands with the Red Rocker.
“It was a really fun night,” Potter says. He and Evans exchange devious smiles, but we’ll leave it at that.
The idea of musicians getting into business ventures which they have no business being in is a natural cause for skepticism. The band Train makes and sells wine that’s both tongue-burning and headache-inducing. (Don’t ask why I was drinking wine made by the band Train.)
But Cabo Wabo has earned a lot of respect over the years, and the Waborita is fantastic. It’s got sour mix, some Cointreau for a hint of orange, a splash of Grand Marnier and two parts Cabo Wabo blanco tequila. It’s refreshing, like a spicy lemonade. Evans remarks that the key element is the house-made sour mix. He and his team squeeze the limes and lemons for it behind the bar, then mix the result with pure cane sugar and a little bit of OJ. He has me take a sip of the mix alone, just to show how fresh it truly is. Together with that high-grade tequila, it’s both delicious and dangerously smooth.
C.o.jones opened in 1999 and was Potter’s first New Haven restaurant venture. (In recent years, he’s opened Prime 16 and the New Haven Meatball House). Prior to that, Potter had been kicking around in San Diego, working various restaurant jobs. That’s where his interest in tequila culture developed.
“I spent some time in Old Town, and really got a taste for good tequila and margaritas,” he says. That particular section of San Diego has a heavy Mexican influence and is the site of raucous, traditional celebrations like Cinco de Mayo and Día de los Muertos. Old Town also happens to be old: it was the first settled community in all of California.
Potter took his newfound knowledge back east where tequila bars aren’t too common. He says he chose New Haven specifically because of its diverse clientele and collegiate atmosphere.
The tequila selection is deep and wide. Not only does c.o.jones have the standard silver, blanco and platinum offerings, but there’s also an array of reposados and añejos. Reposados are distilled from 100% blue agave, aged at least two months but no longer than twelve in oak barrels. The aging process gives it a subtle straw-colored hue and a smoother taste than the more common stuff. Añejos are also aged in barrels, but sit for a longer period, sometimes up to three years. Potter says distillers have begun experimenting with bourbon and brandy barrels, which tend to infuse a bit of sweetness into the tequila.
It’s okay if you can’t choose, because you don’t really have to. There are seven different samplers, which range from $6 to $12 and contain three different 1/2 ounce tastes of tequila. Aside from the Waborita, there are other specialty drinks like the Chipotle Martini, which uses chipotle-infused vodka, the aforementioned sour mix and black sea salt sprinkled around the rim. For solid standbys, there’s a strong range of fruity frozen margarita flavors: Strawberry, Mango, Peach, Coconut and Guava.
Though the tequila reigns supreme here, the food is no slouch. A year ago, Potter decided to slim down the menu, though it’s still pretty sizeable. The Carnitas Pork and Pineapple Burrito I tried featured shredded pork, rice, beans, fresh salsa and caramelized pineapples for a righteous touch of sweetness. The Yucca Fries were hot and crisp, golden sticks of fried cassava root drizzled with a delicious and tangy crema fresca. There are standard Mexican menu choices like enchiladas with your choice of main ingredient (Chicken, Veggie or Steak), but they’re outnumbered by more unique offerings like the Sweet Potato Taco, stuffed with caramelized chunks of sweet potato and black beans, and the Banana Leaf Braised Steak Taco, with salsa verde, avocado and citrus pico.
At c.o.jones’s beloved happy hour, which is Monday through Saturday (that’s right: happy hours on Saturdays) from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., frozen and rocks margaritas are half-priced, as are all draft beers and some bottles of wine. Tapas and tacos are 50% off, too. But the vegetarian build-your-own-burrito bar? That’s free with a drink purchase.
As 5 p.m. hits during my visit and happy hour is on, folks begin to flood the dining room and bar. A woman exchanges warm salutations with Evans and sits across from him. He tries to ply her with complimentary chips and salsa but she says no, thanks.
She’d just like a Waborita, please.
969 State St, New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.