Mission: Michelada

Seeking the history and mystery behind the borderland’s best—and spiciest—cerveza preparada.

March 1, 2014

BuzzIssue 5: March/April 2014
The décor at Mariscos Chihuahua is all aquatic — complete with a waterfall pour of beer to refresh your michelada.

The décor at Mariscos Chihuahua is all aquatic — complete with a waterfall pour of beer to refresh your michelada.

El General shambles through saloon doors dusty from dirt bullied airborne by the battle without. Battle? No! Revolution! Times like these call for a beer, but not just any beer—this beer shall have lime juice and hot sauce added to it, for that is what El General wants for him and his men; someday soon, Pancho Villa himself shall drink such a beer from this very saloon, for this is the year 1910, and this is the town of San Luis Potosi, and it is during the Mexican Revolution that Don Augusto Michel has created the drink which will forever be named after him: The Michelada!
So goes one story.

“Just try it!” someone said.

“Beer mixed with Clamato and hot sauce and what else?” I thought. “No, no, no.” But I tried it—and I loved it: The Michelada. “Where’d this come from?” I wondered.

El General’s story, it turns out, is just one of the many dubious stories of origin for this famous beer cocktail (cerveza preparada) that came out of Mexico.

Another story, more prosaic, says the mythic michelada met its moniker via the Tecate corporation in the 1950s. Hoping to hide the tinny taste of their cans, Tecate made a marketing push to suggest their beer was best imbibed with lime and salt, and from there, the recipe grew as—
No, such a suggestion is too cynical (even for me).

Perhaps the real tale is told by one Michel Esper Jorge in the 1970s, related in issue No. 10 of Vive (a magazine out of San Luis Potosi), who claims that he came to play tennis at the local club and asked for a beer accompanied by a glass of ice, lemon juice, hot sauce, and Maggi seasoning sauce. “What is that called?” asked a bewildered waiter. “Well, I guess it’s a Michelada,” Michel replied.

This anecdote has the advantage of occurring after the advent of readily available ice cubes in Mexico, crucial to the michelada. But still: Are we really to believe someone telling the story of a drink named after themselves?

Maybe the etymological explanation is most compelling. Michelada is simply an elision of “mi chela helada.” Chela being a term for a light beer in Mexico (similar to the American allusion of lager as “blonde”), when you ask for your chela cold, you get: Mi Chela Helada… Michelada = My Cold Beer.

Sounds good to me.

Apropos that the michelada has a murky past; the michelada itself is murky, and I’m not just referring to the Clamato clouding the beer. Ask five different enthusiasts and you will get five different answers to the question, “What is a michelada?” If you really want to start a fight, you can ask, “Who has the best michelada in Tucson?”
In certain parts of Mexico, the terms chelada (beer with lime and salt) and michelada (the chelada with other ingredients added) swap meanings—and in Tucson, the meaning of the michelada may be found in Clamato—a spiced mixed of clam and tomato juices—or Tajín—a spice mix of chile, salt, and lime—or anywhere in between. I’m an amateur etymologist but a professional booze writer—which is to say: I know what I like, and know what I don’t know. I knew I liked micheladas and knew I didn’t know enough about them. So, after a serious survey, I set out to taste as many of the recommended micheladas as my schedule/liver permitted.

At Restaurant Sinaloa, located on Prince near Oracle, the menu proclaimed a panoply of Mexican seafood, the flatscreens played only soccer (i.e., football, i.e., Copa Mx on the crawl), and an abundant arsenal of hot sauces awaited, expectant, at every table. When my companion ordered a beer, a plain beer, it arrived with a salt-rimmed mug pre-filled with a finger of lime juice (she added beer, sipped, and proclaimed it great). Yet no michelada appeared on the menu.

“Can I get a michelada?” I asked our server.

“What beer?” she asked.

Everything on the table — at BK Tacos, Tori Silva spreads out all of the ingredients that go in just one michelada.

Everything on the table — at BK Tacos, Tori Silva spreads out all of the ingredients that go in just one michelada.

As I’d later understand, the michelada often arrives at the table as a mixture of Clamato and secret spices in a separate glass, to which the customer adds their preferred beer—which they must specify.
Upon further questioning, our server suggested I order the “special” michelada. “They mix it up in back,” she said. “They use some of the shrimp juice.” Cooks bringing the composition of cooking to cocktail creating? I had to order it.

The concoction landed on the table with no accompanying beer—the beer was already within the massive mug, heavy enough that every hoist to my lips could qualify as a curl. Huge, heavy. But when my meager mortal’s muscles managed a sip? It was delicious. There was briny shrimp juice in there, but something else, too. Something they wouldn’t say. Those who care—care enough about the michelada—care enough to not give away their recipe. But Sinaloa’s version was one of my favorites. Their brine—an elusive flavor.

Briny magic hanging in my mind, we walked out as a slo-mo footballer hung, mid-air.

Mariscos Chihuahua wants you to believe you are under the sea. All walls are coated in oceanic murals with three-dimensional plaster pieces sprouting out of the paintings—waves crest over your head and coral formations form at your feet. In one corner, a lighthouse looks out over the roiling water; in another, a paint-and-plaster waterfall cascades over a light switch, down the wall, and eventually eddies around a box of hot sauces. Below the cash register, some denizen of the deep hovers in the shadows of a rocky cove. Even in the bathroom, a pod of dolphins smile buoyantly in a tableau above the bowl.

It’s the sort of simulacrum that can seem silly, easy to skewer—but actually, it grows on a person, eventually becoming charming. This particular Mariscos, located off Speedway Boulevard and Swan Road, is a small space, and the aquatic vibe infuses all inhabitants. (A far cry from the small seafood stand that opened over 40 years ago in Nogales.) It made me want to settle in and try, say, a whole fish, as the table next to me had done. But I was on a michelada mission, and there were more stops on my list. So, instead, I ordered up a seafood cocktail—which not only turned out to be one of the best seafood cocktails I’d ever ingested, but also offered itself as perhaps the perfect partner to the michelada.

As at the Restaurant Sinaloa, I experienced a bite of brine, though this time it came from cocktail’s shrimp and scallops and octopus (and even sea snails!), bobbing in a bath of Clamato, onion, and jalapeño. Paired with the well-balanced Clamato mixture in their michelada, I started pre-planning for August afternoons. A snack of seafood cocktail and Mariscos michelada sounds like a sweet antidote to summer heat.
“Good michelada?” my server asked.

When I responded in the affirmative, she said, “They mix them up in back,” pointing back at the chef. The theme repeating—a chef concocts a proper michelada.

I nodded toward a chef who may or may not have nodded at me—then I swam outside and floated across Speedway to Sir Veza’s.

“Really? It’s named Sir Veza’s?” was my initial thought. I wouldn’t seek out steak at some place named Arnie A. Sada’s, or try out salsa fresco at a spot called Pete O’Daguyo’s—so I wasn’t thrilled to be looking for a beer-based beverage at Sir Veza’s.

But inside the bar (a muscle-car-and-mariachi mash-up marinated in a sporty aesthetic), patrons unbiased to pun-y names enjoyed many a michelada. It made me smile. And it seemed especially Tucsonan: college boys and gals out on the town, and many patrons in between, were all watching basketball on the flatscreens while hoisting huge chalices filled with Clamato-colored beer. And I do mean huge chalices. I was shocked at the gargantuan goblet set before me, filled—in addition to the usual michelada ingredients—with a side salad’s worth of diced cucumber (and several lemons thrown in for good measure). “You sell a lot of these?” I asked my bartender, Daniel.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “Slow night I’ll maybe make 10 of them. On a weekend night, 50 or 60.” He held up a huge plastic jug filled with their freshly made michelada mix. “On a Saturday or Sunday, I’ll go through five or six of these.” I only went through one chalice myself, meal-like as it was, but it was satisfying.

With its glowing bar and live projections of the solar system, Sky Bar always reminds me of a hip Starship Enterprise—an unlikely milieu for a memorable michelada. But indeed it was. Sky Bar’s version is more of an interpretation than a direct translation of the michelada. The addition of muddled cucumber gave off light, effervescent aromatics, and something was different about the spiciness, too. Dena, my bartender, plunked down the source: a habañero and jalapeño bitters. The drink still had that beer-and-savory base that I’d come to love, with a refreshing twist.
“Do you sell a lot of these?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “On Sunday, we sell more of these than Bloody Marys.”

Photo, previous page: Everything on the table—At BK Tacos, Tori Silva spreads out all of the ingredients that go into just one michelada.

“I’d never really heard of the michelada before moving to Tucson,” I admitted.

“Me neither,” she said. She talked about the michelada as a typical hangover cure, but then moved on—she wanted to say that it was more than that. Something a person could drink after work, too. “I think of it as a working man’s drink … you know, the beer is diluted, [so] you can have one at the bar, go home, and not feel guilty. You earned it.”

BK’s Carne Asada and Hot Dogs! What a boisterous finale! Though often known as one of Tucson’s premiere purveyors of Sonoran dogs (along with El Güero Canelo), BK’s seems to have some serious word-of-mouth michelada momentum, too. I’d heard their name murmured many times among enthusiasts, and after my visit, I could see (see: taste) why.

Bouncy bass-and-beats give off a subtle clubby undercurrent beneath the quirky corner bar comfort of the décor—complete with Lotería cards lacquered into the woodwork of the table. I sat down in front of El Sol and El Sandia and, not knowing their secret portents, feared the worst. But when Tori Silva swooped the micheladas onto the table, immediate relief arrived in beverage form. Much the same, I’m sure, as the swarms of hung-over supplicants who seek this relief every Saturday and Sunday at BK’s.

In many ways, their michelada melded together many of the best elements of the others I’d enjoyed. The pleasingly-ponderous chalice recalled the heft at Sinaloa and shape at Sir Veza’s, the Tajín coating the rim (instead of the standard salt) reminded me of the topping on many previous favorites, and though there wasn’t exactly the added brine of a few of my previously preferred micheladas, there was definitely … something. Something … Something super-tasty. Unique. But what was it?

“The secret,” Silva said.

“What’s in it?”

“People always ask … They want the recipe … They say, ‘Just tell me one ingredient.’ It’s secret,” she repeated.

“What’s as much as you can tell me?”

A fresh michelada at Mariscos Chihuahua.

A fresh michelada at Mariscos Chihuahua.

“Fresh-squeezed key limes,” she said, “Clamato, celery, salt and pepper, and …” she trailed off, her grin an ellipsis that, quite distinctly, would not lead to an answer. As I’d later learn, customers often try to recreate the recipe at home and then, hoping for a hint, report on their progress to Silva. Similarly, when she mixes up a to-go batch for tailgating at Wildcat games, many a plea is proffered by super-fans. In all cases, Silva remains forthright as a sphinx.

Still, sensing the presence of a michelada master, I had to ask more questions. For example: What would you say to those who’ve never tried a michelada?

“A lot of people in the U.S., when you tell them about it, they say ‘ewww. That doesn’t sound good,’” she said. “I say, ‘trust me. When you try it …’” She smiled. “They’re hooked.”

Do you still enjoy the michelada?

“Yeah!”

For hang-overs?

“Yeah!”

Is that the primary draw of the michelada?

“No,” she said. People enjoy them after work, at all times—but then she said, “But yeah. Saturdays, 9 a.m., I’ve got hung-over people, couples still in their clothes from the night before, lined up outside the door.”

So, even though micheladas can be found in many U.S. cities with significant ties to Mexico, is there something very Tucson about the michelada?

“I feel it’s definitely more popular in Nogales and Tucson; it’s got that border vibe. Sometimes, when I go up to Phoenix, I go to a Mexican restaurant and ask for a michelada and they don’t have it.” She then spoke of an act so repellant she could barely bear to state it aloud. Sometimes, well … (if there are children in the room, you may wish to ask them to leave) … a restaurant used straight-up tomato juice instead of Clamato! So even if a Phoenix restaurant offers a michelada, “I have to ask them what they use,” she stated, dead serious.

Eventually, I had to know when she first encountered the michelada.

“In San Carlos … in Sonora … back in … I don’t want to …” She didn’t want to age herself, but the dangers of spinsterhood seemed dim in light of the confidence attending the following phrase, buoyed by a smirk bespeaking memories: “I’ve always said, the best thing about Mexico are the micheladas and the men.”

She laughed, then excused herself to serve more micheladas and Sonoran dogs, which she swore were the best in Tucson. Legions of her michelada adherents would certainly agree.

“But really. Who has the best michelada?”

That’s a question I heard all-too-often. Fortunately, this is Edible Baja Arizona and not Buzzfeed, because I’m a bit allergic to ranked lists. Sure, I appreciate insta-drama, but what about nuance?

It’s a question unanswerable, for there are so many more michelada spots left to visit. Mi Nidito, Los Portales, La Botana—these are but a sampling of the proper nouns proffered when I asked that very question, that of the best michelada. Ultimately, I offer myself as Enthusiast, not Expert. Rather than follow my footsteps, ask for a michelada at your favorite Mexican restaurant, even (especially) if it’s not on the menu. At worst, you’ll feel silly for a second. At best, you’ll enjoy an evening resulting in a morning where you’ll wake up with this thought: “I need a michelada.” ✜

Restaurant Sinaloa. 1020 W. Prince Road. 520.887.1161.
Mariscos Chihuahua. 999 N. Swan Road. 520.881.2372.
Sir Veza’s. 4699 E. Speedway. 520.323.8226. SirVezas.com.
BK’s Carne Asada and Hot Dogs. 2680 N. First Ave. 520.207.2245.

Dave Mondy is a freelance writer/imbiber, as well as a college instructor.


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