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L.A. restaurants and bars cope with 'The Great Lime Crisis of 2014'

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'It's not a margarita without lime juice'
In the midst of 'The Great Lime Crisis,' chefs and bartenders are coping as lime prices hit an all-time high

On a typical Friday night, Gracias Madre, the new vegan Mexican restaurant in West Hollywood, sells about 600 of its signature La Purista margaritas, made with reposado tequila, agave nectar, house-made orange bitters and freshly pressed lime juice. 

"It's not a margarita without lime juice," chef Chandra Gilbert says. But the limes for that juice are costing her as much as $136 a case, several times what she normally pays for organic limes.

In the midst of "The Great Lime Crisis of 2014," chefs and bartenders are having to cope as prices for limes reach an all-time high, pushed up by the vagaries of weather, disease and Mexican drug cartels that are reported to have disrupted supply by plundering groves and delivery trucks.

Gilbert says she's stockpiling limes in her restaurant kitchen's walk-in refrigerator and has a secret source for Persian limes from San Diego that she won't divulge.

"We're a Mexican restaurant," Gilbert says. "The margarita must sell." 

In other dishes, she might substitute lemons for limes -- such as for her pico de gallo. At Gracias Madre's sister restaurant, Cafe Gratitude, the key lime pie is off the menu, and the chef there has given any extra limes to Gilbert. 

Serrena Herrick, head bartender at Allumette in Echo Park, is using Rangpur limes that the restaurant's owner discovered in a friend's yard. "It looks like an orange," Herrick says, "and its juice looks exactly like Tang, but it has the exact same flavor as lime. We're lucky we got quite a bit of it. 

"I think a lot of people are subbing lemon or adjusting cocktials to be more lemon heavy. But that’s a totally different profile than lime," Herrick says

Herrick is using the Rangpur limes in gimlets and daiquiris -- "it's the same drink, just a little bit different because of the color." A new cocktail on the menu is the Blacksmith 1987 with Rangpur limes, mandarin-quats (a cross between mandarain and kumquat), oolong-infused mezcal and honey. 

"I'm not eliminating any drinks," Herrick says, "just adjusting them and using other types of citrus. I'm not going to use citric acid or lactic acid like some others are doing. That's totally cool and kind of molecular, but I like to stick with fresh citrus." 

Meanwhile, Gabriel Calliendo, executive chef and partner of Lazy Dog Cafe, isn't changing anything, including prices.

"That's tough to swallow," Calliendo says. He estimates that at 13 Lazy Dog locations, they're going through 25 cases of limes a week, and they're paying more than $100 per case, up from about $17.

The limes are used for garnishing fish tacos, pad Thai, mojitos and margaritas. And the juice is used for the bartenders' sweet and sour mix that's made in-house, in the marinade for jerk chicken and for Thai noodle sauce. "I never realized how much lime juice we used," Calliendo says.

"We haven't raised prices and are taking the hit financially. It's not what we want to be doing, but we're not in the mind of 'let's cut the lime wedges smaller,' 'let's shave 'em' or 'let's take them off,' when the guest doesn't necessarily get that. They come in and they want their limes for their tacos or Coronas." 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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