When I lived in Chicago I could find a stand selling horchata on practically any street corner of the city's bustling Mexican neighborhoods during the summer. So when the weather turned warm in Albany I started to get a craving for the sweet, cold drink made with rice milk, cinnamon and vanilla.
While the refreshing treat originated in Spain, it is served in many Latin-inspired and Mexican restaurants throughout the United States. There are several varieties of the recipe but this agua fresca (fresh water) is usually made from ground rice, almonds, sesame seeds, barley or tigernuts.
After more than a dozen phone calls I was able to track down two Albany restaurants that serve horchata year-round.
El Mariachi on Washington Avenue
El Mariachi's owners are from Puebla, Mexico so their horchata recipe has been inspired by their home country and is a recipe handed down from their mothers and grandmothers.
The horchata is a tan, milky concoction that goes down smooth with just a hint of cinnamon and vanilla. The flavors are well-blended and no one spice overwhelms the others. The icy beverage was pretty tasty paired with the spicy complimentary salsa on my table.
After inquiring about the restaurant's recipe I was lucky enough to get a quick demonstration behind the counter of how El Mariachi makes its in-house horchata. First the rice is heated and soaked for an hour, then three sticks of cinnamon are added, along with evaporated milk and vanilla, which is blended all together. The rice is strained from the mixture and tossed and the leftover liquid is placed on ice.
The drink costs $2.95 per glass and is not available at the restaurant's two other locations.
Salsa Latina doesn't make their horchata in-house, but rather ships a large batch up from New York City to serve at their Albany establishment (a common practice outside of urban centers).
I was brought a very tall, red glass stacked with ice and a creamy white liquid that was a bit thicker than El Mariachi's horchata (see the photo at the top). At first the drink tasted overwhelmingly of cinnamon, but as the ice melted, the flavor became more subdued and the drink was quite enjoyable. A bit sweeter than the other local mix, but very refreshing on a hot day. It is excellent paired with a salty dish -- I enjoyed mine with an arepa con queso (flat baked cornmeal patty with cheese).
A large glass of horchata costs $2.25, but just a heads up the drink is not on the menu so you have to request it.
And just as side note, both Mexican Radio in Hudson and La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant in Clifton Park serve horchata on special during the summer, so be sure to call ahead if you're looking to try some at either establishment.
If you know of any other local restaurants that serve horchata, please share!
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