The Clamato drink with Ceviche at Cinco Tacos Cocina & Tequila in Dallas. (Brian Elledge/The Dallas Morning News)

The Clamato drink with Ceviche at Cinco Tacos Cocina & Tequila in Dallas. (Brian Elledge/The Dallas Morning News)

Brian Elledge/TNS

Most people think of the michelada cocktail as a Bloody Mary made with beer instead of vodka. But that's not just a lazy comparison -- it's wrong.

The michelada originated in central Mexico, and its conception is one of classic necessity, according to David Wondrich, a Brooklyn-based cocktail writer and historian.

"There's a Mexican tradition of what they call cerveza preparada," which refers to a beer that's augmented or tampered with, says Wondrich. "It goes back to a least the 1940s, and there'd be things like lime juice and hot sauce and stuff like that, but they were all pretty simple."

Then in the 1970s, a man named Michel Esper Jorge shook up the scene. Esper Jorge was civil engineer who one day showed up to a tennis match at the Club Deportivo Potosino in San Luis Potosí, Mexico with a hangover. Naturally, he went to the bar for a remedy, says Wondrich, who has traced the story through newspaper archives, books and interviews.

The bartender gave Esper Jorge a glass with ice, a beer and lime juice. Once he had combined the ingredients and added a few condiments, the bartender asked what he was drinking. 

Esper Jorge called it a "michelada," presumably combining his name with helada, the Spanish word for "frost."

From there, the drink spread through central and northern Mexico and eventually into Texas, when a native of San Luis Potosí opened a torta restaurant in Austin with a house michelada on the menu, Wondrich says. But the drink didn't catch fire until the 1990s, when Texas and the rest of the southwest began thirsting for the cocktail. It's now a menu regular from Big Bend National Park to Canada.

But what most people don't understand about this libation is that it isn't defined the use of tomato juice or clamato (a blend tomato concentrate and clam broth). That's optional, says Edna Lopez, general manager of Cinco Tacos Cocina and Tequila restaurant in North Dallas. 

A michelada is defined as a beer on ice, mixed with lime juice and a special sauce known as petro, which is a blend of Maggi sauce, hot sauce and other seasonings, such as Tajin. (Petro is short for petroleo and so named for the black color of the sauce.)

"In the north of Mexico -- Monterrey, Sinaloa -- normally we don't use clamato. It's just straight salsa de petro, lime juice and beer," says Lopez, who grew up Sinaloa, a coastal state in northern Mexico, where micheladas were staples of beach culture and cuisine. "But it tastes very, very good with clamato, too. Particularly, I like it with just a little bit of clamato."

Every bar and restaurant has a unique recipe and approach to making a michelada. At Cinco Tacos Cocina and Tequila, guests can order the drink con (with) or sin (without) clamato -- always over ice -- and either way, it's an excellent accompaniment to any of the restaurant's ceviches. At Salsa Limón, the michelada mix is prepared before it's sent to the restaurant's five locations in Fort Worth and Dallas. Just don't ask what's in it.

"It's a trade secret," says Rosalia Ramirez, co-owner of the business. "Like a lot of things at Salsa Limón, we make it from scratch... Since we dedicate a lot of time to it, that's why we think it should be a secret."

Clamato Michelada Festival

Most places serve micheladas with a choice of Mexican beer, such as a Modelo, Corona, Pacifico or Dos Equis, which guests add to the glass for their desired ratio of beer and mix. Salsa Limón, however, serves its Michelada with a beer suspended and overturned in the goblet for an Instagram-worthy presentation that's also functional, Ramirez says.

"As you go drinking your michelada, it mixes the mix and the beer without you having to pour," she says. "And it's quite exciting."

During my research, I tried one michelada made with a local craft beer and found that Mexican lagers offer a better canvas for the cocktail's star ingredient -- the spicy sauce. The result is a wonderfully refreshing and bubbly beverage that's flavorful and thirst-quenching.

"It's supposed to be quaffable. It's a summer drink, it's a cooler, it's liquid air conditioning," says Wondrich. "It's not a meal. The Bloody Mary has become a meal in a glass."

Where to order a michelada

The michelada from Salsa Limon features a house-made spicy tomato mix, a Mexican lager beer and fresh lime, all garnished with an orange and lime.

The michelada from Salsa Limon features a house-made spicy tomato mix, a Mexican lager beer and fresh lime, all garnished with an orange and lime.

Brian Elledge/Staff photographer

The michelada is a popular, if misunderstood, cocktail. Here's where we recommend imbibing one:

  • At Cinco Tacos Cocina y Tequila, the drink can be ordered con (with) or sin (without) clamato. 5000 Belt Line Rd., Suit 850, Dallas.
  • Micheladas Restaurant and Bar is so named for its signature libation, which you can also dress up with shrimp. 2828 Webb Chapel Ext., Dallas.
  • Expect Palapas Seafood Bar's michelada to have a substantial dose of clamato. 1418 Greenville Ave., Dallas.
  • Salsa Limón serves its michelada with a beer suspended and overturned in the goblet, which mixes the cocktail as you drink it. Five locations in Dallas and Fort Worth.
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