A mix and mash of agua fresca outlets to quench your thirst
Finding freshly made aguas frescas isn't as easy as it used to be -- many restaurants now use commercial powders and mixes. Many too are overly sugary. Look for aguas in pitchers or traditional vitroleros rather than in circulating machines. Here are some of our favorite sources:
Alegria on Sunset: This Silver Lake mini-mall restaurant has superb made-to-order aguas frescas in an always-changing variety of flavors. Recently: banana, strawberry, orange, watermelon, cantaloupe and papaya. For an extra 50 cents, they'll add fresh ginger to the blender (try it with watermelon). 3510 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 913-1422; www.alegriaonsunset.com.
Ara's Kitchen: A Salvadoran food stand that sets up at three farmers markets, Ara's is fronted by a colorful array of fresh aguas frescas. Recently on offer: watermelon, horchata (a version made with seeds from the Calabash -- also called morro -- gourd), cantaloupe, and two terrific blends, a gorgeous emerald-green lemon-lime-mint and a pineapple-green apple-mango. Sometimes they also have cebada, a Salvadoran drink they make from strawberries, milk and wheat. Downtown Los Angeles farmers market, City Hall south lawn, between Main and Spring streets, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays; Eagle Rock farmers market, Merton and Caspar Avenues, 5 to 9 p.m. Fridays; Encino farmers market, 17400 Victory Blvd., 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays. (323) 822-0921.
Chichen Itza: This upscale Mexican restaurant near MacArthur Park (there's a smaller outpost in Mercado La Paloma) has just three aguas frescas on the menu, but they're terrific: a classic jamaica, horchata made with almonds as well as rice and cinnamon, and an excellent (and not so easy to find) guanabana. 2501 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 380-0051; www.chichenitzarestaurant.com.
Huarache Azteca: At this taquería in Highland Park, you can order some pretty great horchata, jamaica, cantaloupe, watermelon and pineapple agua frescas most any day. And on weekends, they have tepache -- a traditional agua fresca of fermented pineapple. 5225 York Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 478-9572.
Jugos Acapulco: The aguas frescas usually overflow at Jugos Acapulco; sometimes the staff simply makes so much that they even give you whatever extra is left in the blender. The restaurant offers more than a dozen flavors, and tropical tastes dominate: papaya, guava, mango and even mamey -- a grainy slush from the caramel-apple flavored sapote fruit. 307 E. 1st St., Santa Ana, (714) 836-1965; 2003 W. 1st St., Santa Ana, (714) 558-1414; and 745 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 722-8513.
The Hungry Cat: The made-to-order daily special aguas frescas at this Hollywood seafood joint are as good as the better-known cocktails. Sit at the bar and watch the bartender make watermelon, cucumber-lime and now that it's stone-fruit season, maybe a luscious peach. 1535 Vine St., Los Angeles, (323) 462-2155, www.thehungrycat.com.
La Casita Mexicana: The aguas frescas at this Bell restaurant are terrific. Depending on the day, the list might include horchata, watermelon, mango-strawberry, or a lovely lemon agua fresca made with chia seeds (a kind of sage grown by the Aztecs), a drink at once lemonade-familiar and unusual. Sometimes they even have a cactus agua fresca. 4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell, (323) 773-1898; www.casitamex.com.
La Taquiza: Very close to USC, this always-crowded taquería has terrific aguas frescas, made with fresh fruits -- and old family recipes. The watermelon agua fresca is laced with lime, while the deep red jamaica agua fresca is shot through with fresh strawberries. 3009 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, (213) 741-9795.
Loteria Grill: Aguas choices at the Farmers Market Loteria Grill in L.A. rotate frequently. Recent choices: horchata, lime, pineapple and strawberry. At the new Loteria Grill in Hollywood, chef-owner Jimmy Shaw promises even more variety, maybe cucumber-lime, jamaica, watermelon, pineapple, a lime with chia seeds and more. "There are so many great fruits we haven't played with," Shaw says. 6333 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 930-2211; and 6627 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 465-2500; www.loteriagrill.com.
Oaxacalifornia: This pretty café and juice bar inside downtown L.A.'s Mercado La Paloma sports a row of brightly colored jars of aguas frescas freshly made using recipes handed down through three generations of owner Juan Antonio's family. Antonio makes sorbets too, a scoop of which he'll put in some of his aguas frescas . 3655 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 747-8622.
Taco Mesa and Taco Rosa: There are four Taco Mesa and two Taco Rosa restaurants in Orange County. The more informal Taco Mesas all have big jars of pretty aguas frescas at the salsa bars. Each restaurant rotates three flavors, depending on the season. Recently on offer: watermelon, cantaloupe and horchata, all sweetened with agave syrup. Honeydew, grape and tamarindo are also regulars. Taco Mesas: 3533 E. Chapman St., Orange, (714) 633-3922; 647 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0629; 27702 Crown Valley Parkway, Ladera Ranch, (949) 364-1957; 22922 Los Alisos Blvd., Mission Viejo, (949) 472-3144. Taco Rosas: 2632 San Miguel Road, Newport Beach, (949) 720-0980; 13792 Jamboree Road, Irvine, (714) 505-6080. www.tacomesa.net.
Taquería El Granjenal: The menu here brings in eaters early with its breakfast burritos and the simple orange agua fresca (they also have horchata and jamaica) is a light drink so fortified with fruit that it's one of the best ways to start a day. 899 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-4964.
Vallarta Supermarkets: In the center of the huge Burbank branch's large food court is a vibrant, busy aguas frescas counter. In addition to the trinity of jamaica, horchata and tamarindo, choices recently have included strawberry-banana, cantaloupe, a mixture of a few fruits (ensalada de frutas), and the difficult-to-find mamey. All Vallarta supermarkets have aguas frescas in their food courts, although the selection will vary. 10950 Sherman Way, Burbank, (818) 846-1717; www.vallartasupermarkets.com. --Amy Scattergood