My first job in food was serving tables at Blanca’s, a family owned, Mexican and El Salvadorian restaurant. It was the most authentic Latin restaurant in my town at the time, probably still is, and quickly the IT spot for the huge Central American contingency in Northern Virginia. It was a hole-in-the-wall of sorts, but served bona fide cuisine from those two countries, from pan dulce to tamale de elote to pupusas revueltas. It also happens to be my sister-in-law’s family’s spot. It’s still a proverbial hole-in-the-wall, but a darn good one, now 20 years on top of their game. I came to know true El Salvadoran food from Blanca, the owner and exec chef and my SIL, not just by watching the little middle-aged women working the dough station a thousand miles a minute, but also because I noshed on anything coming out of the revolving doors that looked colorful and steamy. The food was wildly and consistently good. And so were the drinks — drinks I’d never heard of in a Cuban home.
Cocktel de frutas was a colorful fruit salad of sorts in a beverage form. While delicious, it was a task to take on. A drink requiring a tablespoon becomes a cold soup in cup, if you ask me. Their pink drink, cevada, was alright, but again, way too bubble gum pink to feel I were drinking something not out of a powdered bag. They had high-pulp tamarindo, which I loved more than anything. It was tart but sweet and slushy enough to remind me of our summers in Miami visiting mis abuelos. And then there was orchata. Lord have mercy. This drink here. It was the most unattractive of the 6-carwash bucket lineup — yes, these daily-made drinks were stored in plastic, white buckets. The orchata was pale in color, dull in texture and didn’t smell like anything. It borderline looked like a bad mix of dirty sand and milk. Not a good look at all. But when I tell you this super cold rice milk drink was the best thing I’d sip as a teenager, let me tell you what. It was my instant addiction. I quickly found myself nudging the cashier more often than not for an extra take-away cup after my shift. Even on a good day of special features, I’d opt for at least three large basos of that creamy goodness.
I still remember those days and have often looked out for a comparable version… to little success. Making it is a bit laborious for my liking, especially when I can make a quick run from my parents’ house to Blanca’s. And then, when least expected, I came across Chila ‘Orchata, a rum orchata drink made of fluffy dreams. This cinnamon-based cream beverage is the kind of stuff that makes my inflight experiences smooth. A splash of creamed rum to my coffee is always a better option for long trips across the country. It also so happens, that for Valentine’s, some family and loved ones are taking an alpine-themed snowboarding trip to Jackson Hole, where these Latin-inspired drinks don’t abound. In my best earnest effort to introduce some local friends to an adult beverage that represents a strong sense of my childhood, I packed a bottle of Chila ‘Orchata to share. But before I offered them up a sip or two, I wanted to make sure there was a layer of familiarity. And so much like the original orchata I used to drink when I worked at restaurant, White Russians have a nostalgic vibe for me — it’s the very first drink I ever had, courtesy of my dad. I don’t remember exactly what’s in a White Russian but I do recall how strong and perfectly sweet it was. For years it was my go to cocktail.
I played around with a few drink ideas — using Chila ‘Orchata as the hero — that would serve both the purposes of introducing my alpine life friends to a new kind of infusion and also to invite inspiration for what’s to come next week: intentional actions of love and admiration. I also wanted to invoke a bit of wintry vibes. After all, when snowed in, a lovely home cooked meal accompanied by a delicious drink is guaranteed to render the experience a memorable one. What I came to, finally, is a sexy marriage between two different times in my life with a modern splash of one my favorite seasons.
And so to celebrate the season and Valentine’s Day with some of my favorite people — minus 5 — I hooked up my version of a White Russian. And since espresso is the holy grail of my mornings, it was only appropriate I use that as the secondary base. A splash of vodka, a dusting of cinnamon, whole espresso beans and a generous pour of Chila ‘Orchata were enough to create a beautiful drink. The final complementing touch was a pine needle-infused simple syrup, which of course begs a small stem of fresh pine needle. I used Douglas Fir needles since those were the most abundant.
It’s as sexy as it sounds but even lovelier when you think of the memories surfaced and the new experiences to boast. It’s kind of like being a kid in your heart but with the glorious benefits of adulting!
Cheers to your loved ones this Valentine’s Day! Treat them to the gift of simple goodness. In this case, a perfectly balanced rum drink that’s good enough to sip on the rocks, pour over a freshly baked pound cake (or ice cream) or a myriad of cocktails. For now, enjoy this libation, from my cocina to yours!
*Special thanks to Rendezous Bistro in Jackson Hole for lending me space and time to style and shoot this yummy cocktails!
Eat well, love unapologetically, pray with true intention, and take care of yourself.
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ALPINE CHILA ‘ORCHATA ESPRESSO RUSSIAN
- 2 oz Chila ‘Orchata
- 1 oz unsweetened espresso
- 1 oz Vodka, good quality
- 1 oz pine needle simple syrup
- 1/8 tsp + pinch cinnamon, ground, for dusting
- espresso beans, for garnish
- pine needle sprigs, for garnish
Add all of the ingredients except for pinch of cinnamon, espresso beans and pine needles to a martini shaker. Shake well. Pour into chilled martini glasses, over ice or neat. Dust with remaining cinnamon. Top with espresso beans and garnish with pine needle sprigs.