Agua fresca, horchata a focus in Eldorado Cafe’s Latin-tinged cocktails

Mexican restaurants — and their tequila-heavy margaritas — are part and parcel of this town, giving us many options for one of our favorite cuisines.

To distinguish his latest project, the new Eldorado Cafe on West Anderson Lane, owner and executive chef Joel Fried (you’ll know him best from Austin taco empire Tacodeli) decided to create a drinks menu that goes beyond the margarita while staying true to the casual cantina-like atmosphere of the restaurant.

To do that, Eldorado Cafe has tapped two other popular Mexican beverages that, despite their easy appeal, aren’t all that common in cocktails: horchata and agua fresca. Both are sweet, nonalcoholic and refreshing — horchata is made primarily from rice and served with ice, while agua fresca is mainly fruit added to water and chilled.

You’ll find them used at Eldorado in drinks like the disarming Sandanista, with Enchanted Rock Vodka, watermelon agua fresca, Maine Root ginger beer and fresh lime juice. The vodka lets the watermelon agua fresca take center stage, while the ginger beer adds a gentle spice and prevents the watermelon from stealing the show with too much sweetness. Sandanista is a simple cocktail, and it embodies exactly what Fried and Eldorado’s bar manager Laura Beck are aiming for with the cocktail program.

“Most of my bartending experience has been with music venues, and I had never really crafted drinks before. I thought of the liquors as the proteins, and what sauce goes well with the protein?” Fried said. “I didn’t want to have a whole bunch of different steps with the drinks, and I thought, ‘Agua frescas are a good sauce.’ That’s where I started. I gave a few ideas to Laura, and she ran with them.”

RELATED: Find boozy respite with some of Austin’s best brunch cocktails

Beck loved the idea because it meant she could keep the cocktail program fairly straightforward. With the horchata and agua fresca adding lots of their own flavors, she said, she could “keep it simple but keep it good. I didn’t want to go overboard with all these ingredients.”

She used to work at Vivo when it was still located on Manor Road, but Eldorado Cafe has been the first place where she’s led the creation of a bar program — a collaborative effort that made construction of the space more bearable this summer. The staff would work long days leading up to the August opening trying to get everything ready.

The off-menu horchata cocktail, Suaderado, was created on one such day when a delivery of Chameleon Cold-Brew Coffee to the restaurant at the same time the Eldorado staff was making horchata inspired the icy combination of cold brew, horchata and RumChata, a rum-based cream liqueur. Coffee is an almost ridiculously good match for horchata; together with the liqueur, they make a “great breakfast-type drink,” Beck said. (It’s not on the menu, but you can ask for it.)

In Latin America, horchata is made differently country to country. Eldorado Cafe follows Mexico’s version, arguably the most well-known, making it with rice and flavoring it with cinnamon. It’s not a quick process: Kitchen manager Esme Tejeda soaks the rice and cinnamon concoction for a day in water before blending and straining it twice. From there, vanilla and sugar are added. The horchata is creamy, slightly sweet and the color of milk.

Agua fresca is also slightly sweet, made from fruits (or vegetables, chia seeds or even rice, like horchata) mixed with sugar and added to water — although Eldorado’s agua fresca, made from juiced fruits, lacks the water, Beck said, because they are added to cocktails (unless someone requests them nonalcoholic). Currently, there are two on the menu: pineapple and watermelon. She expects these and their corresponding cocktails will change out with the seasons, depending on the availability of the fruit.

The watermelon house margarita, which tastes “almost like a watermelon limeade,” might become a cucumber margarita in the wintertime, Beck said. The Sandanista and another drink made with the pineapple agua fresca, Cap’n Bob, might also have to be changed.

Then again, the Cap’n Bob is something special at Eldorado Cafe — a tiki twist on the tropical mai tai, with pineapple agua fresca, falernum, Flor de Caña rum, lime juice and house-made cherry liquor. It’s Beck’s first foray into tiki cocktails, and it was named for the father of Fried’s wife, Joanna.

RELATED: Rediscover the sweet soul of rum with these Austin cocktails

“My father-in-law is Captain Bob,” Fried said. “Back when we had time and money, we used to go to Hawaii and visit them and drink many a mai tai with them. We wanted to pay tribute to that.”

Adding agua fresca to the cocktail, versus straight fruit juice as many bartenders do, means that the sugar so integral in balanced drinks is already there and doesn’t need to be accompanied by simple syrup or some other sweet ingredient like honey or agave nectar. The cocktails with agua fresca also, thankfully, aren’t at all cloying; Beck makes sure of that. She dislikes sweet drinks.

Joining them on the menu is the Tamarindo, with Don Julio Añejo Tequila, tamarind nectar, lime juice, honey and a spicy rim. A nod to a beloved cocktail at the old Vivo location where Beck worked, the Tamarindo is made using the tart, potent nectar from the pod-like fruit on a tamarind tree, a common fixture in Mexico. The tamarind pod, like horchata and agua fresca, is popular there, an oft-used base for sauces and candy. (And it can be turned into agua fresca, too.)

“When I accepted this job, I met with my old bar manager at Vivo and talked to him about the drink menu because he is a tequila wizard,” Beck said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to make my own tamarind paste,’ and he thought I was crazy. He used to do it. It’s kind of a pain. It doesn’t yield a lot. But we have agua fresca and horchata — why not tamarind?”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Austin360 Eats

Who’s bigger than Childish Gambino? Daniel Johnston, that’s who.
Who’s bigger than Childish Gambino? Daniel Johnston, that’s who.

Wonders never cease in the world of Daniel Johnston. The Texas songwriter, who rose to prominence in Austin with home-recorded cassettes in the 1980s, is No. 1 on this week’s Top Commercials chart in Billboard, thanks to a much-talked-about new Apple ad that features his song “Story of an Artist.” RELATED...
The former Chicon space in East Austin is transforming into new tropical-themed bar, Last Straw
The former Chicon space in East Austin is transforming into new tropical-themed bar, Last Straw

The building that formerly housed Chicon on East Sixth Street won’t be vacant for long. Taking over is Last Straw, a vacation-inspired bar and restaurant with both original and classic cocktails and a food menu full of dishes we crave late at night. Last Straw, slated to open in late summer this year, is partly the vision of managing partner...
Macaulay Culkin came to Austin to ‘blow stuff up’
Macaulay Culkin came to Austin to ‘blow stuff up’

Celebrity-sighting in Austin is so much easier when the stars give us a heads up. Case in point: “Home Alone” actor Macaulay Culkin, who posted to his Instagram account this weekend that he was in the capital of Texas. “I'm in Austin. Gonna blow stuff up with @modernrogueshow,” Culkin wrote in the caption of a photo of...
Even Willie Nelson’s new coffee brand isn’t legal in every state
Even Willie Nelson’s new coffee brand isn’t legal in every state

Willie’s Reserve, a strain of marijuana launched by Texas legend and famed marijuana acolyte Willie Nelson, isn’t available legally in Texas. And fans of cannabidiol (CBD), which recently became legalized in Texas in very specific cases dealing with epilepsy, might have to wait a while to eventually get their hands on Nelson&rsquo...
Kacey Musgraves announces tour dates in Austin in March 2019
Kacey Musgraves announces tour dates in Austin in March 2019

On Monday, singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves announced the North American dates for her “Oh, What a World” tour supporting her most recent release, “Golden Hour.” Kacey Musgraves performs on the opening weekend of the 2016 Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park Oct. 2. 10/02/16 Tom McCarthy Jr...
More Stories