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
Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, 1931. The area that the Canter family made a home for their deli after migrating from New Jersey by way of Boyle Heights. It’s home to the former site of Gilmore Stadium where the minor league baseball team The Hollywood Stars played until 1948. It’s the spot that in the Spring of 2008, Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo delighted Angelenos when they opened up their germanely approachable restaurant, “Animal.” Somewhere between the natural conflux of a traditional, family-oriented community and an upwardly-mobile (and noticeably more lively one), Fairfax Avenue also became home to newsstands, burger joints, high-end linen emporiums, vintage furniture stores, bars and skate shops. At its core though it remains an indelible resurrection to something which neophytes everywhere believe that Los Angeles lacks: a sense of community. For Fairfax’s newest addition, Cofax Coffee, there isn’t a doubt of legitimacy within their residency.
The staff is indubitably friendly, and if you know anything about the owners, Jason Bernstein and James Starr, their employees are an extension of themselves: happy, welcoming and almost singularly-dedicated to the task at hand. The minimalist interior comes off clean. All of it offset by a row of aged coffeepots and framed baseball-centric wall drawings by the surprisingly quixotic, Mike Gigliotti.
I dropped in on a recent Thursday and was met with that particular smell of breakfast food and coffee that reminds one of school mornings as a kid. Much to my delight, the clientele was a mix of locals: equal parts Fairfax High School’s finest and a few, obviously older, residents. Surprisingly all chatted in reserved decibels, as if they knew exactly what to expect. Still, I could hear snippets of excitement with regards to the rather heady smell coming from the back of the place.
The system is simple. You have a couple of recognizable coffee choices, some donuts and maybe two breakfast burrito options to choose from. Three, if you add in the extra cash for avocado. In between ordering your coffee and deciding on whether or not you want an extra green or an extra red salsa, you become aware that the door behind you is opening and closing in an accelerated yet quiet pace as more customers circulate through—all of whom, in a city as populated and manifold as Los Angeles, seem to mind their p’s and q’s. The teenagers pick up their skateboards and take off their hats. The elderly don’t daly, rather they opt to wait patiently and offer napkins (when needed) to the furtive questioning looks of the youth.
As I recently tweeted, the fare is worthy of membership in L.A.’s burrito court. Like Bernstein & Starr, it is an adjunct and thoughtful melding of flavor, having evolved at the hands of two men who clearly appreciate simple things done with care. What it’s not is a tough outside. It isn’t overcompensated with the heavy weight of greasy potatoes. Quite the opposite in fact, as the potatoes are seamlessly incorporated into a hash. It even took me until my last bite to recognize the extraordinarily light starchiness of them. The eggs and the meat were so delicate that they melted into a consistency which (I swear!) I haven’t tasted since I was eight when my mother took a memorable 35 minutes to whip up a batch of perfectly light, scrambled eggs.
Anyone who knows me understands my deep and unabated love for greasy, juicy, salt in the morning. But the thing about Cofax’s burritos is…they’re not trying to be that. They’re not a replication of a greasy spoon. And they’re not traditional. They’re perfectly proportioned and crisply pressed. They’re filled, but not to the point where there’s too much that you end up throwing some away. You’ll want to finish every last bite of their burrito because, much like the shop, it reminds you of another time in a different city where you used to eat a place that cares. In my hometown, it was this family-run Mexican joint called Manny’s, where all the local kids frequented for the chorizo and tacos.
Much like the historic and enduring avenue which it sits on, Cofax is part coffee shop and part time machine. It’s a delightful throwback to another time when service seemed to matter. Back when kids and adults alike could seek comfort from the chaos of life with nothing more than the inexplicable comfort of a sip of pure coffee and a bite of breakfast. It’s a bright spot in a changing neighborhood in an evolving city. And rather than alienating itself from those changes—young and old, new school and old regime—it seems to welcome them. There’s a sense of community here that’s worthy of the established avenue which it sits on. Quite simply, it’ll remind you of home.