Horchata Quest 2k12: In search of the best rice-flavored agua fresca in town
Ah, summer in Texas. Many of us who have lived through past summers are familiar with the constant refrain, “I’m spending next summer in _______!” (You might choose to fill in the blank with Canada, Iceland, Sweden or if it’s August, the North Pole).
The best way to deal with an Austin summer is to come up with a list of coping mechanisms. Yes, you can stick your head in the freezer, take cold showers, frequent Barton Springs or even drown your sorrows in a margarita.
Now that I have a 6-year-old sidekick along for the ride, I have chosen to weather this season by embarking upon Horchata Quest 2012.
If you think to yourself, “hor-what?”, you are not alone... but, you are missing out.
Horchata is a refreshingly cool, sweet beverage made from rice, cinnamon and sugar. Horchata comes from Mexico, where it is often served alongside other aguas frescas, including tamarindo, which is made from the fruit of the tamarind tree and jamaica, taking its flavor from hibiscus flowers.
Here in Austin, you might also spot sandia, which is made from watermelon juice and is also quite refreshing if you don’t like the creamy taste of horchata.
After realizing that a store-bought mix just wasn’t going to cut it and not having the time to attempt to make it on my own (most online recipes are adapted from Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican), I thought a horchata-search would make a great summertime project. I would go sample as many versions of horchata as I could in a two-week period and emerge with a constellation of places around town I could visit when I need a respite from the summer heat.
As luck would have it, when we wrote down our summer bucket list, my son added “Go on an advencher.” So, with that in mind, we hopped in the car, cranked up the obvious Vampire Weekend song and struck out on Horchata Quest 2012.
Right in the heart of Clarksville and across the street from the iconic Nau’s Drugstore is Zocalo. Along with great Mexican food, counter service and a very kid-friendly atmosphere, they serve up some delicious horchata. Their horchata is a great blend of rice, cinnamon and sugar, with no one flavor overwhelming the others.
In addition to horchata, they usually have one other type of agua fresca, whether it is watermelon or orange-pineapple. Kids can order either to go with their kids’ meals, and I should also mention a horchata colada is on the menu (alas, it tasted like a regular piña colada to me).
We eat at Zocalo often, so the bar was set high as we set out to in search of alternatives.
You could easily argue that it is ludicrous to assume that the best horchata would be found in Clarksville, so the most obvious place to try first was Fiesta. If you haven’t been to this Mexican supermarket, it’s definitely worth a trip. It’s easy to feel as though you are in another country with most patrons speaking Spanish.
The aguas frescas are located just inside the entrance, next to a walk-up counter with prepared food. We grabbed the first of many styrofoam cups filled with horchata. I was surprised and a little disappointed. This was supposed to be the real deal! It tasted fine, but had a chalky texture.
When the drink was finished, there was what I could only assume was residue from a powder or mix at the bottom.
Mr. Natural is a great vegetarian Mexican restaurant and health food store (yes, you read that right), which has locations on East Cesar Chavez and South Lamar and also has aguas frescas on the menu. The location on the East Side also has a small outdoor patio which is nice for kids who need a little more room to roam.
I was ready to be wowed, but again, the horchata fell short for me. The overwhelming taste was honey or another sweetener, and it lacked a cinnamon taste. Perhaps what this horchata lacked in taste it made up for in more wholesome ingredients, but that was not my objective. Of course, my son and his friends did not mind and had no problems finishing up their glasses. But we left still in search for a good alternative to Zocalo.
Our next stop on Horchata Quest was La Michoacana on 7th and Chicon. La Michoacana is part of a chain of grocery stores catering to Latino families. Similar to Fiesta, but with more of a corner store feel, you walk up to a counter to order your horchata and pay up front at the register.
After one sip, I was finally vindicated. Immediately, I realized why I had always liked horchata: It is the liquid version of the rice pudding I used to have as a child when visiting my grandparents in Greece.
There was no aftertaste and no evidence of powder at the bottom when the drink was finished. La Michoacana’s version was even better than Zocalo’s! My son agreed.
Located on Guadalupe just a few minutes from campus, Chango’s is the less-fancy version of Manuel’s. Chango’s also has counter service.
I grabbed a few horchatas on the way to pick up my son from camp and found it to be different than what I had tasted so far, but still very good. The rice had a stronger taste than the other horchatas we had sampled, but that wasn’t a bad thing.
We had to grab a quick dinner to eat in the car one day (it’s summer, all right!) and so it was a good excuse to try out El Chilito’s horchata. El Chilito is a walk-up restaurant on Manor Drive, east of its more formal counterpart El Chile.
The tacos were a hit, and the horchata was also well-received. This version had a strong cinnamon taste, which came very close to too much cinnamon. Although I didn’t get one, I did notice they also have paletas (basically, popsicles) that are horchata-flavored.
Despite our initial horror at the prospect of spending as much (or more) for a drive-through meal as we might at a sit-down restaurant, we sprung for Fresa’s for Father’s Day. Fresa’s uses local, pasture-raised chickens (if this is a new term for you, check out this video) and happens to have aguas frescas on the menu. Score!
Unfortunately, what we got tasted nothing like any horchata I had ever sampled. I admit that part of the reason I embarked on the challenge is that I have a big sweet tooth, and this horchata was not sweet at all. There was also no cinnamon taste. In fact, it tasted a bit like sour cream.
I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, since their chicken was really tasty, but I’m not sure I would try the horchata again.
The last stop on Horchata Quest was Polvo’s. Being a fan of their margaritas, it had never occurred to me to try their horchata, but I was glad we did. I couldn’t distinguish it from Zocalo’s, so suffice it to say we enjoyed it. I’m sure it helped that we all really enjoyed our food.
So, there you have it. I’m sure our Horchata Quest won’t end here, although I must admit that was a lot of horchata to drink in two weeks. But it was worth it!
Maybe next time, I’ll have to check out the horchata snow cone my friend told me about from Sno Beach.