Not long after the first frost, the Mexican food carts that sell spiced mangoes and agua fresca through the summer switch to tall stockpots of champurrado and steamed tamales for winter. Champurrado, a warm, rib-sticking drink made from chocolate, milk, cinnamon, and masa (a form of cornmeal), is usually sipped at breakfast and frequently paired with sweet Mexican bread or tamales. It doesn't have the peppy, caffeinated kick of cafe con leche or cappuccino; the effect is more like being wrapped in a soft woolen blanket, which is why many carts selling the drink cluster near el stations to lure commuters before a chilly wait on the platform: the thick, sweet beverage is the liquid version of an extra ten minutes in bed.
Throughout small villages in Mexico, champurrado is a year-round breakfast staple, made at home or bought from street vendors. On December 12, the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexican families gather at home for a traditional meal of tamales and champurrado. In Chicago, the drink is plentiful that weekend at many family-run Mexican restaurants.
Recipes vary. Southern regions of Mexico, around Chiapas, use cocoa instead of chocolate, and some cooks substitute other grains for masa. Dolores Ortiz, who serves an authentic slow-cooked champurrado at her namesake Rogers Park restaurant, Quesadillas y Mariscos Dona Lolis ("Lolis" is short for Dolores), notes there is one constant in the traditional preparation: "It's always mama who makes it," she says. Usually that means the abuelita, or grandmother. "Whenever the daughter makes the champurrado, everyone complains that abuelita's recipe is better, and so the recipes are passed down that way," she says.
At Dona Lolis, Ortiz's husband Armando does all the cooking, including the daily batch of champurrado. "I don't like to make it," she says, laughing. "But that only happens in the U.S. In Mexico, there is so much machismo--muchos machos!--a man would never make champurrado." Dolores, who was born in Mexico City, says Armando learned the recipe from his mother in Michoacan. Is there a secret ingredient? "Every cook has a secret ingredient," she says.
For a large batch, the process takes two hours of constant attention. "You have to mix it constantly, and you must stir slowly," says Dolores. Rapid stirring doesn't give the cornmeal time to absorb the liquid, resulting in a thin, gritty mixture. Champurrado should be velvety and thick, warming the stomach without weighing it down.
The result at Dona Lolis is smooth and mellow, with a good corn aroma and a sweetness that stops short of cloying. The Ortizes don't serve tamales, but any selection from their menu of quesadillas makes a harmonious pairing. The champurrado at Dona Lolis is one of the best in Rogers Park, and diners from all over the city come for the quesadillas, made from homemade tortillas and filled with ingredients like flor de calabaza (squash blossoms) and huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on corn and has a mushroomy flavor).
For a quick sample of champurrado during the week, try one of the carts outside the Blue Line stops at Division, Armitage, or California. The best deal in town can be found at Armitage, where $1 gets you a Styrofoam cup of the warm drink and a tamale. Along the Red Line, the Sheridan stop is a good one to try. Some vendors also sell arroz con leche, rice cooked in milk and served warm.
On the weekend many local restaurants serve champurrado, but the New Maxwell Street Market, held every Sunday at Canal and Roosevelt, offers the widest variety of regional preparations. The Green House, a cafe set up on the west side of Canal just in front of Dominick's, serves both regular champurrado and champurrado rico, an extra thick, more richly flavored version, along with fresh pastries and steamed tamales.
North of Roosevelt, Tacos Bernardo offers a milky but tasty $1 cup of champurrado rico, served up by gangly teenage boys. The most unusual and delicious version is sold at Antojitos Mexicanos Dona Cruz, where flour replaces masa. Dona Cruz's cinnamon-flecked champurrado has a satiny texture with no trace of graininess, and she'll offer a free taste if you ask.
Nuevo Latin restaurants like Nacional 27 serve gussied-up versions of the drink, combining chocolate syrup and vanilla with coffee to appeal to gringo palates. Jazzing up the mixture isn't necessary, however. For those who live thousands of miles from their birthplace, says Ortiz, "champurrado reminds people of home."
Quesadillas y Mariscos Dona Lolis is at 6924 N. Clark, 773-761-5677.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.