If you’ve been out for brunch in the last year or so, then perhaps you’ve seen a rather peculiar-sounding drink on the menu called a michelada. South of the border, everyone knows what it is, but up here, even in the big cities, few people do. Unless, of course, you’re a boozehound like me or one of those masochistic people who go out for brunch every weekend. While you can and should enjoy a michelada at any time of day, for me this Mexican import has come to symbolize day drinking as much as anything else out there.
About 15 years ago, I made my first trip to Mexico to research tequila. Seriously, that’s actually a job. On a scorching July afternoon, after a day in the arid blanket of agave fields, our group retired to a local cantina where I was presented with something called a chelada. Although it tasted like so much more, I discovered that it was simply beer and lime juice, poured over ice into a salt-rimmed glass. It was a revelation. I needed this in my life.
But wait, it gets better! Our bartender added a few heavy shakes of something called Tajin, which took this already democratic drink to another level. This hugely popular local spice mix is made of ground chilies, salt and dehydrated lime zest. Often a few dashes of Maggi sauce are added (not too dissimilar to Worcestershire), and you have an umami bomb that is captivating and rather addictive. This is your summer thirst quencher right here, folks.
One of the greatest bartenders I’ve ever mentored is a Mexican chap from Guanajuato named Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez, the man to see behind the stick at the Daily in New York’s trendy Nolita neighborhood. He would regale me with stories of his teenage years, when he would go to the beach and vendors would troll the sands, selling cans of icy Tecate and skewers of shrimp that they would grill right in front of you for a paltry fee. They would squeeze a little lime around the rim of the beer can, add a pinch of salt and a suggestion of hot sauce, if so desired.
Of course, this serving suggestion is ubiquitous in any hipster bar in many of the major capitals these days, but it was nice to hear the story of where it began, at least for one individual. It certainly didn’t start in Williamsburg. After hearing Nacho’s recollection, the only fitting garnish for the michelada from then on — at least for me — is a piece of skewered shrimp, whether it be poached, pickled or grilled. Few drinks represent al fresco drinking in the summertime as well as a well-made michelada.
Try to use a beer with some remnants of flavor. That cancels out Corona, obviously. Don’t even get me started on Corona Lite (we have ice water for that). But you don’t want something that is too bold or contemplative. This is not a drink to think about or fuss over. Dos Equis lager, Pacifico and Modelo Especial all make fine choices, as would anything of a similar ilk. Pour this over some ice, add the juice of one whole lime, a few dashes of Worcestershire and your favorite hot sauce (I like Tabasco chipotle for a smoky note). Be sure to rim the glass with good-quality salt, and if you’re feeling fancy, put some ground cayenne powder in your salt mix.
Some people add tomato juice to their micheladas. Please don’t do that. Not unless you want to ruin what is already a perfect mixed drink. If you want something a little higher-octane, a tiny whisper of mezcal never hurt anybody. I call this one the Evil Michalada. At Empellón’s new Al Pastor concept in the East Village, they opened with ten different micheladas. They now have five versions on their menu, each one conceived by a local celebrity chef. You might see the likes of yuzu, white miso, corn powder and beef broth in theirs, though with varying degrees of success.
The great thing is, you don’t need a mixologist’s quiver of tools or ingredients to make a great michelada. You don’t even need to go out for brunch, which is surely the best part.