The Sierra Madre Oriental is remote and inaccessible, a Central American mountain range shrouded in myth. Probably best known for the 1948 film starring Humphrey Bogart, it runs through an area that at one point contained both Mesoamerican and Aridoamérican cultures. On a lone stretch of the Sierra Madre Oriental lays the mining state of San Luis Potosi. It is a windswept and a plain land, scoured for centuries for its gold and silver deposits. Within its capital city of the same name, on a far end of town sits the oldest sports club in the city. Built in 1940, Club Deportivo Potosino is nationally renowned for swimming and tennis. It was here after a hot day on the courts, at some unknown date in the last century, that a club member by the name of Michael Esper gave birth to what has arguably become one of L.A.’s hometown drinks: The Michelada. It is rumored that Esper would drink his beer with lime, salt, ice, and a straw. A tasty adult beverage akin to a beer lemonade. As with all refreshingly cold drinks, consumed after much physical exhaustion, the drink was a welcomed hit and the community at Club Deportivo Potosino began ordering “Michael’s Lemonade.”
Time often justifies its passing with our interpretations on tradition, and the Michelada is no different than any of our others. Today, you’ll find it served with more than just lime and salt. Variations include the use of tomato or clam juice and Worcestershire sauce. More often than not, the lip of the glass will be rimmed with thick salt and chili powder. Popping up on menus at the innumerable Mexican and Lagtin restaurants around LA, it has also found its way into our bar scene. It’s typically inexpensive to make, which might make it more appealing and affordable than other crafted drinks. It has less of an alcohol content than either liquor or wine. And, with its borderline “reviving” qualities similar to that of a Bloody Mary (or Bloody Maria) it is understandable why the Michelada has become the approachable “it drink” of the moment in L.A. What’s not clear, however, is who makes it the best yet after a summer tasting them, we think we know who comes close: El Rio Bravo.
Just a little past the renovation of Culver City, on an almost shockingly clean strip of Washington Boulevard, mashed in between old bungalows and auto shops sits this family-run Mexican restaurant. Tidy, its decor is straightforward with orchids brightening up its many windows. On any given night there’s a charming and outgoing gentlemen who plays on a keyboard and sings from a small, self-fashioned platform in the front. Within mere seconds of sitting, hand-cut tortilla chips are delivered to your table and the salsa made fresh throughout the day and is well worth any wait. There’s an endearing mix of patrons: multi-generational families and young kids spending their allowance whether it’s plates of chips or larger portions, everyone gets their monies worth. It is because of El Rio Bravo we understand the enduring simplicity of the Michelada; specifically their Michelada.
Here’s what to expect as you get ready to indulge:
Ponder choices of Mexican beer, then place your order. The woman behind the small but orderly bar at the front makes each one by hand, one ingredient at a time. She briefly disappears, reappearing with a cup that’s practically the size of her. Like a glassblower over a flame, she delicately turns it around and around as the lip of the cup kisses the salt, pepper, and chili mixture. She pours a small portion of beer into the glass before disappearing into the back (behind closed doors that we surely don’t ever want to see, for it would rob us of romantic visions of how clam juice and other ingredients come together). The Michelada, siena in hue — mixing in the rest of the beer — she brings it to you.
It is the type of flavor and texture that wills you to believe that even if you haven’t been to San Luis Potosi, you somehow understand the drinks’ origin story. Indubitably, your lips burn. Your ears might temporarily plug. The salt and golden tonic mix with the heat of the pepper as they trace a scalding path down your esophagus. Your cheeks flush. Trepidatious and excited at the same time, you lose your head a little. It’s a lustful feeling. It’s as if you’ve traveled across the arid and dusty range of the Sierra Madre Oriental, came down off the mountains, and witnessed the old cathedrals of San Luis Potosi.
Maybe it’s in this familiar, visceral feeling that’s what food, drink and community are for; a community of our ancestral timelines, a combination and as much of a whisper of a memory as they are an inherent understanding of ancient value. Or maybe it’s simply El Rio Bravo’s Michelada is just that transporting.
NOTE: Make sure you ask or specify how you want your Michelada served. Not everyone has clam juice or even Clamato. Some places opt for the Bloody Mary mix. Others even incorporate fruit. In any event, El Rio Bravo is located at 5853 W Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232. It’s family and budget friendly: $2 beer + taco nights on Tuesdays and kid-friendly menu options.
And because L.A. is definitely not lacking in this delightful drink and because we partook in gulping this tasty adult beverage over the last couple months, here are a couple of Micheladas worth having in this delightful city of ours:
Diablo: 3129 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026; Guelaguetza: 3014 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90006; The Hungry Cat: 1535 Vine St, Los Angeles, CA 90028; Lares Restaurant: 2909 Pico Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90405; La Cita: 336 S Hill St, Los Angeles, CA 90013