There’s hot chocolate, and then there’s chocolate Mexicano, a whole different beast. Mexican hot chocolate is lower on the sweet scale, less rich than European or American styles, infused with cinnamon and chile, and frothy to the brim.
Chocolate has always mesmerized us — the Oltecs called cacao the food of the gods — and not much has changed since. Today, neuroscientists have gone on record that chocolate floods the brain with happy endorphins like serotonin and norepinephrine, which can lift depression, if only briefly while we munch on 70% Valrhona or Compartes bars.
Today, Mexican hot chocolate is made using chocolate tablets like Abuela, Ibarra or Monteczuma, which include chocolate, coarse sugar and some cinnamon flavoring. Restaurants and coffee shops that serve it typically foam up the beverage with cappuccino steamers instead of the traditional molinillo — a wooden stirring tool with a whisk-like build that you rotate between the palms to get a nice froth.
Despite its deliciousness, Mexican hot chocolate isn’t all that easy to find in Los Angeles. Recently, iterations have popped up in unexpected forms, like the Mexican chocolate pie at the Pie Hole and Mexican chocolate ice cream sandwiched between churro spirals at the pop-up cart Churro Burrough. Still, there are some that serve it straight up: Here are four of them.
Much has been written about this Eagle Rock gem that serves killer duck carnitas and cochinita pibil, and its Mexican hot chocolate stays true to this pattern of culinary excellence. Prepared with Oaxacan chocolate powder and doused with spices, this frothy delicate drink tastes more of cinnamon than chocolate, and there’s a strong bite of chili that hits your palate after you’ve savored your first sip. Here they add slivers of toasted almond on top of the generous froth that floats at the brim, an unexpected addition that adds nuance to an otherwise one-textured drink. The finish is strong, but the flavoring balanced enough to finish off the drink fairly fast. 1576 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 478-2791, www.cacaodeli.com.
Elsa’s Bakery is a darling little café in Highland Park, with lavender walls, whimsical white chairs that would fit in perfectly at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and a large portrait of Frida Kahlo hangs behind the register. The slightly rich, frothy Mexican hot chocolate arrives in colorful Mexican earthenware. It has strong chocolate flavor and more chile than other varieties around town, and the froth is sublime — even on the last sip you get a mouthful of heavenly foam. A 40-year-old establishment recently acquired by Edmundo Rodriguez, the bakery is a must for anyone craving excellent pan dulces and great plate of huevos rancheros. Renovated and reimagined when Rodriguez took ownership from founders Manuel and Elsy Vargas a little over two years ago, the bakery fits perfect into the burgeoning hipness of York Boulevard. 5102 York Blvd., Highland Park, (323) 256-9455.
This bakery chain is well-known throughout the Los Angeles area for its Mexican pastries. Serving everything from conchas and orjeas to tres leches and coconut flan, this ambitious bakery founded by Ricardo Cervantes and Alfredo Livas has popped up in Huntington Park, East L.A, Santa Monica, South Pasadena and Hollywood. And for good reason. The Mexican hot chocolate here pairs deliciously with hojarascan — little Mexican cinnamon cookies with the texture of sablés. Dunk these in the decadent, frothy, cinnamon-flavored chocolate for a unique bite that you won’t find anywhere else in town. Served only in to-go cups, this is a great Mexican hot chocolate to pick up on the run at any of the La Monarca locations. 6091 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 463-0933; 6365 Pacific Blvd., Huntington Park, (323) 585-5500; 5700 Whittier Blvd., Commerce, (323) 869-8800; 1001 Mission St., South Pasadena, (626) 403-6860; 1300 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 451-1114, www.lamonarcabakery.com.
Tierra Mia Coffee Roasters
If you want free-trade coffee sourced from Latin American micro-lots and roasted around the bend in Pico Rivera, stop by Tierra Mia in Echo Park. Founded by Stanford grad Ulysses Romero in 2013, who started the company in 2008 and owns multiple locations around Los Angeles County and one in San Francisco, the café serves a mix of specialty lattes that give you nice caffeine buzz with a Latin flair. Its Mexican hot chocolate offers an equal balance of cinnamon, chili, chocolate and sugar, so palatable that though you may wish to slowly savor its nuanced delicateness, you might find yourself finishing it off in a flash. Made with Abuela chocolate tablets, this airy, piping hot drink is as soothing as the spacious, naturally lighted café space. Along the walls hang stunning prints of their micro-lot cultivators, along with little didactic sharing the farmers’ stories. This down-to-earth, honest and unintimidating café is a fantastic addition to the Silverlake/Echo Park community. 1202 N. Alvarado St., Echo Park, (213) 483-3955; 653 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, (213) 895-6000; 9220 Slauson Ave., Pico Rivera, (562) 942-8700; 6706 Pacific Blvd., Huntington Park, (323) 589-2065, tierramiacoffee.com.