On a mission to find licuachelas, Alan Carranza—my friend, photographer and Tepito local—guides me into the depths of his barrio, which is the birthplace of the drink. The barrio’s labyrinthine market has long been a weekend day-drinking spot in Mexico City, and Tepito vendors have a tradition of coming up with creative takes on classic drinks.
The beer-based licuachela is no exception. It belongs to the ever-evolving Michelada canon in Mexico City. The drink is essentially a Michelada mixed with salsas, that is, Maggi sauce and Valentina salsa, and a dash—or a lot—of Worcestershire sauce. It’s topped with a decadent rim of salty and sour chamoy, Tajín, sweet or sour gummy candies and swimming skewers of spicy sweets, all served in a big fluorescent take-home blender cup. The licuachela is Mexican street food culture at its best. It’s over the top, outrageous and ever-changing. But it is also a picture-perfect representation of the neighborhood that gave rise to it: flashy yet accessible, a melting pot of street culture influences.
“The spirit of Tepito can well be a synthesis of what it means to be Mexican,” explains Alan as we await our first licuachela at La Iguana, a stand located at the intersection of Matamoros and Jesús Carranza streets. “Tepito locals are always a step ahead. We take everything to its most surreal expression.” As if to prove the point, our bartender carefully hands over the licuachela, covered with a pile of gummies and a literal cherry on top, which turns our fingers red from the chamoy, saturating our tongues with the salty-sour flavor of the oversize neon Michelada.
Drinking on the sidewalks in Mexico City has, for a long time, been illegal, yet Tepito has always found a way to do it. Tepito is often described as maze-like: The market has completely taken over. Most of the apartment buildings—vecindades—and houses have hidden alleys and two or three ways to exit, adding even more intricacy to the neighborhood’s twists and turns. In this intersection, cantinas used to be on every corner, and local characters would come to drink and party. Now, open-air bars like La Iguana have taken over, and people from all over the city come to enjoy Tepito’s exaggerated drinking culture right on the sidewalk. “I have heard people comparing Tepito to the favelas of Brazil. Yes, Tepito has a strong and unequivocal energy that cannot be ignored,” Alan says, in between licuachela sips. “People come to Tepito with the expectation that something might or could happen. What that is, it’s hard to pin[point], but Tepito always delivers.”
Further into the labyrinth, we move on to our next destination, Dolls Drinks, the original creators of the licuachela. At 2 p.m., every bar along Jesús Carranza street (where Dolls Drinks is situated) moves to a different rhythm of deep-bass reggaeton. Alan explains that Dolls Drinks is inclusive, popular among the LGBTQ+ community. Inside, multiple shelves are lined with ready-to-be-filled cups of colorful cocktail syrups, fruit juices and energy drinks. The bartenders are prepared for serious drinking.
Diana Rodríguez, owner of the street bar, is telling the story of how it all started. “My husband is used to preparing the drinks at every family gathering,” she explains. Rodríguez’s family members are comerciantes, vendors of everything from toys to clothing to home appliances. “One day, in the early months of the pandemic, we were walking in Centro Histórico and saw the colorful blender cups, so we decided to prepare Micheladas with gummies to go out of our parking lot in Peralvillo. We called them licuachela [from the Spanish word licuadora, ‘blender,’ and chela, ‘beer’].”
Thanks to social media, Dolls Drinks became an overnight success. Even in the harshest months of the pandemic, 200 people would be in line waiting for a licuachela to go. Two years later, serving Micheladas with gummies in over-the-top cups has become popular throughout Tepito and nearby Lagunilla, and locals from other neighborhoods in Mexico City come to the market on a weekend just to try them. Nowadays, you can find licuachelas poured in Hello Kitty cups, crayon-shaped jugs and even miniature water tanks, the rotochelas. “Everybody does it now,” says Rodríguez, “but we came up with the blender cup.”
For the last stop on our tour, we head to Lagunilla. As we walk past packed alleys and the Sunday antique market, we start seeing some gringos parked in stands. “Lagunilla and Tepito are changing,” says Alan. “When I was growing up, Tepito and the barrio used to be looked down upon by chilangos [Mexico City locals]; saying you were from Tepito was not a positive thing. Now, everybody wants a piece of Tepito.”
One of the biggest draws is Las Nenas, a street stand serving glittery licuachelas. We elbow our way to the front of the line to order our drinks. Alan goes for the Hello Kitty–shaped cup; I opt for the bright red, glittery blender cup. One of the bartenders is Karla Águilas, who is also from Tepito. In between squishing limes and fixing the gummy candies on the top of the blender, she tells me that her mom started Las Nenas as a Michelada stand between Tepito and Lagunilla in the early aughts, and she began helping out every weekend when she was 12 years old. Now, Águilas is 28 and running the stand. She says that the licuachelas are “the thing” these days, and Las Nenas has put its spin on the serve by covering the blender cups with glitter to make them even more flashy. And it certainly works. As I’m walking through Lagunilla sipping my licuachela, people point and ask me where I got that one.
Buzzed and tired, we finally come out of the other side of the market and I start to get my bearings. Alan has three empty blender cups in his backpack, our hands and lips sticky with beer, gummy worm sugar, chamoy and glitter. “People talk about Tepito as being in the margins of Mexico City culture, but it has always been right at the center,” says Alan.
Later that night, while I post my glitter licuachela, Alan DMs me with a Dolls Drinks story on Instagram. Was that someone dressed as a Transformer dancing among the crowd? Were there sparkling candles and flames coming out of the DJ booth? I asked Alan: “Did that happen today?”
“Yes,” he types. “I told you Tepito always delivers.”