A few years back, I was sitting in a restaurant-bar in Playas de Tijuana, a newer neighborhood in that town with my Mexican half-sister, Iridia, when I first heard the word that would subsequently change my alcohol-consuming life. "Una Corona para mi hermana," she said to the waiter, ordering for her American half-sister. "Y para mi, una michelada."
MEEEEEE-chay-la-thah. The way it rolled out of her mouth so comfortably, with such conviction, and the way the waiter so clearly understood what she was asking for--it was like they were passing the secret code for something unquestionably and deeply Mexican. I had no idea what a michelada was other than, by sheer context, that it was a beverage. And that whatever it was, I wanted one.
The waiter arrived carrying a tray loaded with the contents of our icy, refreshing beverages-to-be: a bottle of Mexican beer served alongside a salt-rimmed glass filled with ice and about three fingers of tangy lime juice. I watched as he made our beer cocktails tableside, a sort of a low-octane take on the margarita.
Later I learned that for those who come from farther into Mexico, the beer-and-lime concoction I'd been drinking is called a chelada. A true michelada refers to a fundamentally different drink. It starts with the same ingredients, only add to that a few dashes of Worcestershire (salsa inglese), Tabasco and soy sauces, and pinches of black pepper and Maggi seasoning--a beer alternative to a Bloody Mary, if you will. It's savory but cold and refreshing. Advocates of this version often accuse cheladas of being diluted beer, Mexico's answer to English "shandy," which is made from beer and lemonade. I say: bring it on.
As for the drink's name, one prominent theory is that it roughly translates to "my cold brewsky"--the "mi" meaning "my," and "chelada," which sounds similar to "helado," the Spanish word for Popsicle, referring to a frosty beverage. Another less-propagated explanation, one that I prefer, is that the michelada was named for its presumed inventor, Michel Esper, who supposedly concocted the spicier incarnation of this drink on a hot day at the Club Deportivo in San Luis Potosi.
Back before cheladas--the easier-to-swallow, lime-only version--became this year's mojito, or the cosmo for the more adventurous, I simply explained to my bartender exactly what I wanted. They looked at me strangely, especially when I got to the ice part, but I got what I wanted.
Nowadays, the server might have heard of a michelada, but first I have to establish what his definition of the drink is before letting him proceed. Thankfully, all this takes but a few minutes, and before I can say "Michel Esper," he's back with my cold brewsky.
2-3 limes (preferably Mexican or Key limes), quartered
2-3 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1 dash Tabasco sauce
1 dash soy sauce
12-ounces Mexican beer
Rub the rim of a tall glass with a wedge of lime and reserve. Pour salt onto a saucer and dip lime juice-coated rim of glass into salt. Squeeze reserved lime wedge and remaining lime wedges into glass until lime juice reaches at least three fingers. Add Worcestershire, Tabasco and soy sauces, pepper and Maggi and stir. Fill glass with ice. Pour in cold Mexican beer.
Carolynn Carreno last wrote for the magazine about figs.