Five Real Mexican Drinks for Cinco de Mayo
Let's just get this straight right away, OK?
Yes, Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday. It's a Mexican holiday the way Patriots' Day is an American holiday. Patriots' Day is only observed in two out of the 50 American states (Massachusetts and Maine, in case you were wondering); Cinco de Mayo is only observed in one out of the 31 Mexican states (Puebla, in case you were wondering).
The whole "drinko for Cinco" malarky, where gloppy combo plates with cheese melted over everything or grade-D meat tacos get chased with a small ocean of the beer-flavored soda known as Corona, is about as Mexican as I am (in other words, not at all). It's thoroughly an American invention, St. Patrick's Day with worse beer.
If you're going to celebrate the defeat of the French army at the hands of the Mexican soldiers in Puebla (insert surrender joke here), which is at least as good an excuse to party as any, at least do so by drinking drinks that might actually be recognizable by Mexicans. Here are five to get you started:
Yes, margaritas really are Mexican drinks--but this business of blended fruit, ice and crappy bottled sour mix has got to go. A margarita is tequila, triple sec and lime juice. Proportions vary, but the "official" recipe is 7 parts tequila, 4 parts triple sec and 3 parts lime juice, served on the rocks; a salted rim is optional. No strawberries, no mangoes, no blenders, and most importantly, no Cuervo Gold. Use a real tequila, one that's marked 100% de agave, but don't splurge; you don't need $50-a-fifth sipping tequila for this drink.
Ask an American to name a tequila cocktail and the first word out of his mouth will be "margarita". Ask a Mexican the same question and he'll tell you "una paloma". The most popular tequila drink (besides straight shots) in Mexico is a shot of tequila and three shots of Squirt, Jarritos Toronja or another grapefruit soda, served on the rocks. The same rules for tequila apply here as for the margarita; try a real tequila and you may get past the "one tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor" problem.
So you want to drink beer? Try a michelada, a version of the muy mexicano drink known as cerveza preparada: mix hot sauce, a few drops of Worcestershire sauce (that's salsa inglesa in Spanish, by the way), some lime and salt; pour a bit into the bottom of a beer glass and top with beer. Hands off the Corona, by the way: get yourself a nice, dark beer like Negra Modelo for this drink.
If you're ever up in L.A. County, incidentally, Cemitas y Clayudas Pal Cabrón (which is the real deal and was just reviewed by our brethren at the LA Weekly) serves micheladas in glasses rimmed with a mixture of chile, salt and ground up maguey--you know, the wriggly things you find at the bottom of the mescal bottle--and they're damn good.
It's pretty much guaranteed that if a food exists on earth, somebody's either invented an alcohol made from it or is thinking about inventing an alcohol from it. Humankind's limitless search for a buzz has to be responsible for tejuino, which is masa para tamales--yes, that stuff you can buy in sacks at the corner of the tortillería--mixed with piloncillo (the cone-shaped unrefined Mexican sugar), boiled and allowed to ferment slightly. It's usually served with a small scoop of lemon ice floating in it, and is so low-grade alcoholic that even kids drink it.
You know when you've eaten a fresh pineapple, you've got the core and the peel left over? Americans throw it away; Mexicans make tepache. Mix the core and peel with piloncillo (or brown sugar) and canela (that's Mexican cassia cinnamon to you), mash it together, and let it ferment for three days. Add a shot of beer to cut the sweetness, and you've got tepache. It's pretty much impossible to get drunk off of straight tepache, but hey, somebody's got to drive.
Finally, a word about how Mexicans drink tequila. The first time I had a shot of tequila with a Mexican guy, I asked where the lime and salt were. He guffawed and made a derogatory comment about my apparent sexual orientation. Only the cheapest, crappiest tequila gets the lick-sip-suck treatment, because it kills the taste of the tequila; real tequila and mescal (which is a similar liquor made outside of the designated "Tequila" zone) are sipped either neat or with sangrita, a concoction of orange and lime juices, grenadine (or sometimes tomato juice) and chile powder or hot sauce.
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