A lesson in horchata

Vampire Weekend may drink horchata in December, but for me, it’s the beginning of summer that calls for Mexico’s — or El Salvador’s — or Spain’s favorite drink. In fact, Vampire Weekend was pretty late to the horchata game: The sweet, creamy, and sometimes nutty blened drink has existed around the world for centuries.

Horchata dramatically varies from country to country, which makes it somewhat hard to classify. Salvadoran, Mexican, and Spanish horchata really only share sugar and water (and often cinnamon, though some fans advise avoiding too much spice) in common. In Mexico, rice pulls the drink together — sometimes toasted, sometimes soaked in water and then blended. In El Salvador, it’s all about the morro, a coconut-like fruit that grows in the country. In Boston, however, we see more and more versions with milk — blasphemy to certain purists who say dairy masks whatever base flavor their version espouses.

The local horchata landscape

Most of the horchata spotted in Boston restaurants actually follows the Salvadoran tradition. No nuts or rice in this version, necessarily — just morro, water, and sugar. But in Boston, it’s hard to find horchata that doesn’t use a pre-made mix, like these ones. Even in the authentic joints in East Boston (arguably the best place to find horchata), the powdered mix goes in with the water and sugar. However, the main reason restaurants do this is because of the accessibility (or lack thereof) of specific ingredients.

"It’s very hard to find the morro seeds, and we need them to do the Salvadoran style," says Ulises Alfaro, a manager at Allston’s Habanero Mexican Grill.

Restaurants are hesitant to share which horchata mix they use (for obvious reasons — you can read off the chemicals on the back), but Alfaro mentions that Habanero uses La Migueleña mix. You can often tell which mix they use by how they describe the drink: If they use the term “Salvadoran,” they’re typically using a version with morro or melon seed, while Mexican horchata, on the other hand, always uses rice.

El Pelon employee pours horchata mixture through strainer.
Carolyn Bick

Jim Hoben, the owner of the 17-year-old Mexican favorite El Pelon, started making Mexican horchata from scratch with a handful of his employees in 2006. When Hoben first founded the restaurant, most of his staff was Mexican. Ten years later, as the Mexican economy improved, several of Hoben’s employees and patrons left the country altogether. Many other Latin American residents stayed, which is why Salvadoran and Colombian restaurants continue to thrive — as does their horchata.

"When we opened, there were a lot of Mexican workers in Boston," Hoben recalls. "Most of my employees are Sonoran, which is still the case… There are plenty of newer places that can take care of the new population. We’ll stick to this."

Where to find what you like

Finding the right Horchata for you depends on what you’re looking for in your summer refresher. We ran around Boston searching for the best of all worlds, and a few neighborhoods delivered.

An El Pelon employee samples a batch of homemade horchata.
Carolyn Bick

Nice with rice:

El Pelon
This casual Mexican spot serves horchata at both of its locations (in Fenway and near Boston College). After months of experimentation, Hoben and his team developed a recipe that essentially stuck to Mexican tradition: no milk — just rice, almonds, cinnamon, and a few secret ingredients. Unlike many of the restaurants in the Boston area, El Pelon sticks to all-fresh ingredients, steeping the rice and then mixing in spices near the end. The result is the chalky, sweet horchata that loyal fans know and love.

2197 Comm Ave., Brighton, 617-779-9090;
92 Peterborough St., Boston, 617-262-9090, elpelon.com

Jamaica Plain’s tiny taqueria opened almost a year ago, but its reputation extends beyond the neighborhood. The ten-seater serving cheap tacos and grilled corn screams summer, and it's just a short walk to Jamaica Pond or Amory Park for a Mexican picnic. Chilacates also skips mixes for their horchata, but its bubblegum sticky-sweetness comes from a combination of condensed milk and sugar. You can trust the rice milk comes from scratch, however.

224 Amory St., Boston, 617-522-6000

Tenoch’s multiple locations all serve horchata, which also sticks to the basics: milk, rice, cinnamon, and vanilla. They’re also all over town, with three locations (in the North End, Somerville, and Medford) and trucks that circulate most weekdays. Grab a torta or al pastor taco for a sweet start to the season.

24 Riverside Ave., Medford, 781-395-2221;
3 Lewis St., Boston, 617-248-9537;
382 Highland Ave., Somerville, 617-764-1906, tenochmexican.com

La Carrizal’s dining room, where they serve Salvadoran horchata.
Carolyn Bick

The nutty/spicy

La Carrizal
La Carrizal, a sit-down Latin American restaurant in Allston’s Union Square, doesn’t advertise its horchata with the typical vat of churning milky liquid. The restaurant keeps a milk jug in the fridge, with a visible silt of spices at the bottom. A speckled, almost brown liquid runs through a pile of ice, and sprinkles of cinnamon float at the top of the cup.

It was mysteriously difficult for me to find out how La Carrizal makes their horchata. Every time I called to ask for the recipe, the person on the other line hung up. The door was suddenly locked every time I came to visit. When I could get in, they said “spices and water.” And yet, this horchata haunts me. I dream about it. It tastes the way a magical, spicy, crisp peanut butter cup would taste.

254 Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-779-0022, taqueriacarrizal.com

Mi Pueblito
On the other side of town, in East Boston, Mi Pueblito serves typical Americanized Mexican fare to locals who sit on wooden chairs with engraved suns. They dip chips into bowls of salsa, and again, no one references the horchata. It’s rarely seen. But when I ask, they provide.

According to the staff, there’s nothing in this horchata but rice, water and sugar, but the rice contributes the missing nuttiness to the drink. To me, this horchata tastes almost like liquid halva, heavy with notes of sesame and honey.

333 Border St., East Boston, 617-569-3787, mipueblitorestaurantboston.com

Circulating horchata dispensers keep the Salvadorian mix smooth at Allston’s Habanero.
Carolyn Bick

Sweet Salvadoran

La Hacienda
East Boston’s La Hacienda is worth a visit on a Saturday morning, horchata or no. In the mornings, a line of families eating along the mirrored wall reflecting an impressive — almost daunting — display of Salvadoran breakfast: tortilla casserole, fried plantains, pupusas, and crispy fried pork belly. At the bar, there’s already a lineup of burly men watching futbol, with beers in their hands or tripe soup in front of them. Horchata comes in a chilled beer mug with a straw, and it tastes sweet and refreshing over salty queso fresco. La Hacienda uses a mix (they chose not to disclose which brand), but they, too, said it was for the morro.

150 Meridian St., East Boston, 617-561-3737, lahaciendaboston.com

Allston’s Brighton Ave. favorite, Habanero, keeps its horchata on display in the classic circulating jugs reserved often for agua fresca. The taco and quesadilla counter sells its horchata without ice for a cheap $2.75, but there’s little fresh or homemade in it. Alfaro mixes water, sugar, and his mix of choice, which he orders specifically for the Salvadoran ingredients within it. Alfaro, a true Salvadoran, knows it’s just not horchata without morro.

166 Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-254-0299