When you think of the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant’s classic margaritas, goblets brimming with tangy liquid gold that carry a mule’s kick are what typically come to mind — hence the cautionary “Limit 3” neon sign glowing on the wall adjacent to the bar.

The basic recipe is one that’s been poured since founder and owner Pat McGaughran and two brothers, André and Stephen Mouton, opened the first Rio Grande in Old Town Fort Collins in 1986.

Along with serving scratch-made TexMex cuisine McGaughran and the Mouton brothers learned during their itinerant travels around northern Mexico and the Yucatan, the Rio has made its mark by serving fresh food sourced from area producers with an eye toward good ecological stewardship for nearly 37 years, said Jeff Volkman, the Rio’s tequila ambassador.

Most of the Rio’s menu is made in house, from tortillas and salsas prepared daily to hand-juiced citrus fruits for cocktails and sauces.

Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant tequila ambassador Jeff Volkman discusses flavor notes in a tasting of Maestro Dobel Diamante tequila. (Credit/ Emily Kemme)

Today there are five Rio Grande restaurants across the Front Range, and the Rio’s margaritas also can be ordered as frozen slushees in mango, strawberry or the Manberry, a bracing blend of mango and strawberry.

But for a span of weeks during February and through mid-March, the aromatic and sweetly tart hand-juiced blood oranges take over the bar and restaurant menu.

“For the Rio, the season starts in February and the blood orange margarita is a cult favorite,” Volkman said.

Unlike other orange varieties which are available year-round, blood oranges have a short-lived season, beginning in December in time to enliven the winter holidays with their mottled reddish orange peels and flesh streaked deep crimson.

“Early on, they’re not fully ripe. They’re not matured into the deep dark red, which translates to more sugars in the fruit,” he explained.

Pot de Creme, a play on French chocolate mousse highlighted by canela, an intense Mexican cinnamon, rounds out the seasonal blood orange menu. (Credit/Emily Kemme)

The oranges continue to ripen until May, but are at their peak sweetness and bursting with flavor by mid-February and into March.

This radiant boost of vitamin C turns out to be juicier, more aromatic and all around better tasting than ubiquitous navel oranges, which are more bitter than the blood orange.

The red coloring in the flesh is also healthier than navel oranges because the red pigment contains higher anthocyanin levels, a naturally occurring antioxidant that’s known to reduce risk of cardiovascular diseases and type-2 diabetes.

Paired with Maestro Dobel Diamante tequila, orange liqueur and lime, the blood orange citrus mix offers a smooth, easy drinking cocktail.

Volkman said the mixture works well with the tequila they hand select from Maestro Dobel, a tequila producer owned by Domingo Beckmann, a direct descendant of Don José Antonio de Cuervo, founder of Jose Cuervo, the top-selling tequila brand in the world .

The Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant is located at 825 9th St., Unit A in downtown Greeley. (Greeley Tribune file photo)

The mid-range tequila is a special edition, double filtered crystal-clear Diamante blend of extra-añejo, añejo and reposado tequilas that is aged in French oak barrels.

The Rio samples it in October each year and buys barrels that are specific to the restaurant. Aging gives the blend a strong oaky note with complex hints of vanilla, almond, caramel, honey and maple and trace elements of smokiness that stand up well to the fresh orange juice in the drink.

To get the full essence, Volkman encourages tasting the tequila alone by tipping the glass to experience its earthiness — the terroir, or the environment in which the agave plants are grown.

To be called a tequila, the spirit must be produced from at least 51% blue agave plants, and it must be produced in one of the five authorized Mexican states which includes Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacan, Nayarit or Tamaulipas, according to the Rio Grande website. Agave plants take seven to 10 years to mature. Maestro Dobel tequila is distilled from 100% blue agave and is produced in Jalisco, Mexico.

The Diamante  bottles each have the factory number hand-written on it detailing the panel judge and processing information. Similar to champagne produced in France, tequila produced in one of the five authorized Mexican states will have an Appellation of Origin on the label.

Blood orange shrimp tacos are prepared escabeche style on the Rio Grande’s seasonal menu. (Credit/Emily Kemme)

In addition to the refreshing blood orange margaritas, the Rio’s seasonal menu includes a shrimp taco prepared escabeche style in a citrus marinade, which — you guessed it — uses blood orange juice, paprika and other spices. Lightly pickled Fresno chiles and avocado salsa add both fire and creaminess to the taco presentation.

Pot de Creme rounds out the menu with a play on French chocolate mousse highlighted by canela, an intense Mexican cinnamon, and sugared dehydrated blood oranges. To make the dessert extra memorable, pair it with a glass of Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia Extra Añejo.

The special blood orange menu is a wonderful way to anticipate springtime and will be available through March 12th.

Rio Grande Mexican Restaurants have locations in Greeley, Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver and Park Meadows. Find a location near you by going to www.riograndemexican.com .

This article was originally published in Greeley Tribune