We were introduced by a mutual friend, a buddy of mine who knew her from his days on the Mexican border. We sat down in a dirty Mexican hole in the wall in (of all places) Provo, Utah, and there she was. My buddy would go on to wait tables at the biggest Mexican place in town, but I still remember tiny Moya’s, its little bar and its warm, small tortillas. That’s where I first saw Horchata.
It started as a fleeting crush, that’s all. There was a mystery to it– milky look, but watery texture, cinnamon with a touch of citrus. It takes time to understand a combination like that. I moved on, Horchata did too.
I was still fiercely loyal to root beer back then. I used to brew my own in Portugal, nursing my home-made bottles along just like all those winos out on the streets. Root beer got me through those years, and I wasn’t about to walk away now that life was easier.
We moved to Washington D.C. and established a favorite Mexican place. We probably went there 20 times in three years, and not once did I look for Horchata. Time was precious and life was full—I wasn’t looking for anything serious.
Back in Utah, I wandered through a little street fair, just down the block from my apartment. Chocolate bananas, fresh donuts, and then a taco stand, heavy on the fresh cilantro. In the back, behind the tired old Mexican lady sitting on an overturned jug, there it was—a five gallon bucket, greasy on the outside, cooled on the inside with ice floating in a white pool of cinnamon motion. It was the first I’d thought of it in years, but I was instantly thirsty.
In the heat of that day with a little plastic cup in my hand, it was made perfectly clear to me. The watery thin-ness isn’t a lack of substance- it’s the exact scientific density of refreshment. It is silk made out of sugar and rice, and it is the best thing at the fair, whatever fair you’re at. It wasn’t a crush anymore.
I started looking harder for it, but Horchata was evasive. Mexican restaurants are everywhere, but some of them don’t have it, and some of them don’t have the real thing. I realized that Horchata may be the most misunderstood of specialty ethnic drinks. I tried to tell people- you can’t get Horchata from a syrup. No, shouldn’t be thicker than milk. Costa Vida mixes it as thick as rice pudding. It’s delicious, but decadent. Horchata without the innocence is hardly Horchata at all.
So I learned to make it myself. The recipes are complicated. I chose one that required pureeing raw rice in water and then straining it through a cheese cloth. After an hour of sweaty labor, I looked down past my cheese cloth to see less than a cup of concentrated rice juice, like precious oil pressed from olives. It made me doubt my devotion. I mixed it up into Horchata anyway. It was good, not great. Two kids strolled by and took a swig. “Hmm,” said one. “Needs more . . . taste.” “Yeah,” said the other. “More taste.” Whatever.
Earlier this year we went on a vacation to Mexico. I asked for Horchata. “What?” said all the waiters in the touristy resort towns. No one had heard of it. Macy asked me if I had made the whole Horchata thing up. Maybe it’s actually from Brazil? she asked, or maybe it’s just an American novelty trying to pass as an exotic import? She likes watching me bristle.
Boy Gets Drink
We come home from Mexico, and I think about moving on. Those virgin margaritas down there were nice—maybe there’s a fling to be had. Or maybe just accept adulthood and sign up for a tedious life of Diet Coke. It’s depressing, but I start to resign myself.
Down at the food court, a new restaurant opens- a satellite outpost of Red Iguana. I don’t even think about the implications.
The day of the grand opening, I order the chile verde. “Do you want a drink?” I eye the soda fountain. It’s boring. “You like Horchata?” Bells ring. Mexican angels sing—arias backed by castanets and Spanish guitars. The cash register closes. I swallow it all before I start to understand what it means. It’s close to authentic. Thin, smooth, the taste comes to you only after a few gulps. Perfect. Then I see. It’s not just one cup now. It’s in my life– for good– just a few feet from my office. I won’t ever want for Horchata again. And it doesn’t require a cheese cloth either. Thank you, Mexico.