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.”

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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.

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“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?”

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