Essence of cool

Share via
Times Staff Writer

ON COUNTERS of neighborhood taquerias and Oaxacan restaurants, at Salvadoran farmers market stands and Eastside backyard parties, even at swank Hollywood restaurants, you can see the huge glass vitroleros, beehive-shaped jars filled with aguas frescas in a spectrum of stunning colors. Each flavor is like a point of reference on a color wheel: the deep magenta of jamaica (a variety of hibiscus flower), the pale green of honeydew melon or cucumber-lime, the scarlet of just-made sandia (watermelon), rice-based horchata’s milky white.

Aguas frescas have a long tradition in Mexico and Latin America, where the “fresh waters” -- made with fresh fruit or rice, tamarind pods or dried hibiscus flowers, sugar and water -- are the perfect thirst-quencher for hot weather and sometimes-hotter cuisine. In the pre-Columbian 15th century, the story goes, Aztec farmers would paddle their canoes into Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) with fresh fruit that they would mash and mix with water for a refreshing drink.

Just what’s in the gorgeous, ice-loaded jars depends on what fruit is in season. Right now, you might find cantaloupe, a pretty watermelon laced with lime, maybe a pale honeydew melon or peach, or a combination of more than one fruit. Year-round, you’ll usually find the classic trinity of aguas frescas not made with fruit: tamarindo, horchata and jamaica.


These are neither sodas nor fruit juices, but subtly flavored drinks that are balanced, light-bodied -- and not overly sweet.

Southern California’s best aguas frescas makers, traditionalists and modernists alike, rely on the little touches, either personal or regional. An agua fresca is a minimalist’s drink: With so few components, the quality of the ingredients and the simple twists (a squeeze of lime, a shot of agave nectar) make all the difference.

Juan Antonio, owner of the cafe Oaxacalifornia in downtown Los Angeles, uses his grandmother’s recipe for horchata, which many people consider the most refreshing agua fresca. Horchata is made by soaking rice overnight in water, then pureeing the mixture in a blender, straining it and adding flavorings such as cinnamon, vanilla or almonds.

Antonio serves the drink over ice with a sprinkle of diced toasted pecans and fresh cantaloupe -- topped with a scoop of his house-made cactus pear sorbet. The sorbet slowly melts in the glass, painting the pale horchata in pink and orange hues, and adding a terrific flavor counterpoint. He also likes to add a scoop of lime sorbet to a glass of tamarindo or, when he’s made a jar, a chilacayota agua fresca. (Chilacayota is a Mexican squash.) Using the sorbet, Antonio says, “is a typical way of serving [aguas frescas] in Oaxaca.”


A pinch of pizazz

Traditional tamarindo -- made by boiling, soaking and straining tamarind pods, with water and a little sugar -- can also be jazzed up.

Near USC, at the busy taqueria La Taquiza, Anthony Medina adds pints of fresh strawberries to his jamaica agua fresca (also a family recipe), first steeping hibiscus flowers to make tea, then blending it with berries and a little sugar.


The resulting drink is stunningly pretty -- a crimson so rich it might have spilled from a Frida Kahlo painting -- and has a flavor that perfectly juxtaposes the tart hibiscus with the sweet, floral notes of the berries.

“You have to counterbalance the high acidity of the hibiscus,” says Medina, who remembers his mother making the drinks when he was a kid. He likes guava too, and mango, which he blends with a little lime.

Over at the Hollywood restaurant the Hungry Cat, bartenders take their aguas frescas as seriously as their cocktails -- a plus for kids and non-drinkers -- and if you sit at the bar, you can watch as your agua fresca is created. Aguas frescas aren’t on the bar menu, but offered as daily specials. A peach agua fresca is sweetened with lavender-infused simple syrup. Another Hungry Cat favorite is a cucumber-lime, and before cherry season ends, look for a Bing cherry agua fresca, spiked with lemon and Fresno chile-infused simple syrup.

Aguas frescas shouldn’t have a lot of sugar -- they’re refreshing thirst-quenchers, not sweet drinks -- so it’s key to use the sweetener judiciously and to make sure it’s fully dissolved. And, depending on what kind of fruit you’re using, macerating the fruit can also work wonders. Macerating -- tossing cut-up berries, for example, with sugar and allowing them to sit for half an hour -- brings out the fruit juices, accentuates the flavors and dissolves the sugar, all at the same time.

Sweetening the aguas, says Ivan Calderon, co-owner with his brother Marco of the Taco Mesa and Taco Rosa restaurants (in Costa Mesa, Orange, Ladera Ranch, Mission Viejo, Newport Beach and Irvine), “enhances the flavor of the fruit; it does the same thing that salt does to food.” But he suggests using agave nectar instead of sugar, as he does with all his restaurants’ aguas frescas. The nectar (available at Trader Joe’s stores, Whole Foods, Ralphs and other grocery stores), is less cloying than sugar and more healthful (higher in fructose, lower in glucose than sugar), and it dissolves instantly.


Sweet simplicity

If YOU don’t have agave syrup on hand, take a tip from bartenders and make a quick simple syrup by briefly boiling equal parts sugar and water in a pan. You can flavor the simple syrup with lavender, as the folks at the Hungry Cat do, or with other herbs or spices (a trick used by pastry chefs as well as bartenders).


Use ripe fruit for aguas frescas, even fruit that’s slightly past its prime. You’re throwing it in the blender, after all, and you want the sweet rich notes of the fruit rather than its perfect appearance.

At his two Loteria Grills, the original at the Farmers Market on Fairfax and the newly opened restaurant in Hollywood, chef-owner Jimmy Shaw -- born and raised in Mexico City -- prominently displays the glass vitroleros.

Shaw combines a traditionalist’s approach and a chef’s creative flair when making his aguas. He’s outfitted his classic jars with spigots; he spikes his cucumber-lime agua with Serrano chile and a little salt. On a recent night behind the stoves of his new kitchen, Shaw shared a favorite trick. Make two batches of your favorite agua, he suggests, and freeze one batch in ice cube trays to use when serving. The agua fresca cubes won’t dilute the drink.

Improvisation (“Mexico is a land of masking tape and wire,” Shaw says) is as key an element as seasonality when making aguas frescas, so use whatever fruit you have handy. A ripe pineapple or papaya, a few pints of blackberries.

Then blend and balance out the flavors with a little sweetener, maybe some lemon or lime. Take the edge off your summertime thirst by tasting your agua as you make it.

Depending on how ripe the fruit is, you may not need anything more at all -- except the cold, fresh water that gave this glorious drink its name.





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.alegriaon

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.chichenitza

Huarache Azteca: At this taqueria 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,

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;

La Taquiza: Very close to USC, this always-crowded taqueria 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;

Oaxacalifornia: This pretty cafe and juice bar inside downtown L.A.’s https://:// “> 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.

Taqueria 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.vallartasuper

-- Amy Scattergood

Additional reporting by Miles Clements.


Strawberry jamaica agua fresca

Total time: 20 minutes, plus steeping and macerating time

Servings: Makes 2 1/2 quarts

Note: Adapted from Anthony Medina of La Taquiza

2 cups dried hibiscus (jamaica) flowers

2 pounds strawberries, hulled and quartered

1 cup sugar

1. Combine the hibiscus flowers with 4 cups of water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes, then allow to steep for about 2 hours. Strain and reserve the hibiscus water.

2. Place the strawberries in a large bowl, toss with the sugar and macerate for 30 minutes.

3. In a blender, puree the strawberries (and any syrup) with the hibiscus water; this may need to be done in batches.


4. Strain the mixture with a standard sieve into a large pitcher; stir in 2 quarts water. Adjust consistency as desired with additional water; add more sugar if desired to sweeten. Serve over ice. This will keep for 2 days, refrigerated.

Each 8-ounce serving: 75 calories; 0 protein; 19 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 0 fat; 0 cholesterol; 1 mg. sodium.



Total time: 20 minutes, plus overnight soaking

Servings: 2 1/2 quarts

Note: Inspired by Juan Antonio of Oaxacalifornia. Soak the rice the day before. Agave nectar is available at Trader Joe’s stores, Whole Foods, Ralphs and other well-stocked supermarkets.

4 cups long grain white rice

3 cinnamon sticks

1/4 cup agave nectar

Chopped toasted pecans for garnish (optional)

Diced cantaloupe for garnish (optional)

1. In a large bowl, combine the rice and cinnamon sticks. Bring 6 cups of water to a boil, then pour the hot water over the rice and cinnamon. Cover and allow to soak overnight.

2. In a blender, puree the rice mixture (including the cinnamon) with the agave nectar until smooth; this will need to be done in batches. Strain the mixture through a mesh strainer lined with a triple layer of cheesecloth (or a chinois). Stir in 6 cups cold water, or adjust consistency to taste. Adjust the sweetness to taste with additional agave nectar if desired.

3. Just before serving, stir the horchata vigorously. Serve over ice and garnish, if desired, with a few chopped toasted pecans and a sprinkle of diced cantaloupe. This will keep for 3 days, refrigerated.


Each 8-ounce serving: 94 calories; 1.5 grams protein; 19 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 5 mg. sodium.


Cucumber-lime agua fresca

Total time: 20 minutes

Servings: Makes 2 quarts

Note: Inspired by Jimmy Shaw, of Loteria Grill. Find agave nectar at Trader Joe’s stores, Whole Foods, Ralphs and other markets.

5 whole cucumbers, coarsely chopped (not peeled or seeded)

1/2 cup fresh lime juice

1/2 serrano chile, seeded and minced (or more to taste)

1/8 cup agave syrup

Sea salt

In a blender, in batches, puree the cucumbers with 2 1/4 cups of water, the lime juice, chile, agave syrup and a generous pinch of sea salt on high speed. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer lined with a triple layer of cheesecloth (or use a chinois), discarding the solids. Serve over ice. Keeps 2 days, refrigerated.

Each 8-ounce serving: 19 calories; 0 protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 36 mg. sodium.


Watermelon lime agua fresca

Total time: 15 minutes

Servings: Makes 2 1/2 quarts

Note: Agave nectar is available at Trader Joe’s stores, Whole Foods, Ralphs and other well-stocked supermarkets.

1 medium seedless watermelon, rind removed and cut into medium pieces (about 6 pounds)

2 tablespoons agave nectar

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 3 limes)

Sea salt

1. In a blender, puree the watermelon with 4 cups of water and the agave nectar, in batches.


2. Strain through a coarse strainer or mesh sieve, discarding any solids. Stir in the lime juice and a generous pinch of sea salt.

3. Adjust the seasoning and consistency to taste: agave nectar for sweetness, lime juice for tartness, sea salt to enhance flavor, and water to thin. Serve over ice. Garnish each glass with a slice of lime, if desired. This will keep for 2 days, refrigerated.

Each 8-ounce serving: 57 calories; 1 gram protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 7 mg. sodium.