Through the predawn fog, a barely visible gate opens into a field of soft earth, where the scents of hay and manure give way to a distant banter. It’s 5:30 a.m., but it sounds like the party has already begun in Avocado Heights, a community less than 20 miles east of Downtown LA next to the City of Industry. Men dressed in cowboy hats, puffy vests called chalecos, Pendleton jackets, and hoodies take swigs from jarros de barro, large clay mugs loaded with a beverage called pajaretes. Tinted with cocoa powder and coffee, plus a splash of 96 percent sugar cane alcohol, the cup is passed to a milker who pulls thick streams of raw milk, called leche bronca, from a cow or goat, unleashing white plumes of steam in the morning air and mixing the ingredients into a warm, frothy drink.
Pajaretes, the name of the spiked hot chocolate as well as the gathering itself, is a morning ritual for countless farm workers, ranchers, construction workers, and laborers across Southern California. The gatherings originated in the states of Jalisco, Colima, Nayarit, and Michoacán, but they’re now a common scene that takes place all week long in ranching or semirural areas like Chino, Muscoy, Victorville, Palmdale, and even in the city of Compton. For Angelenos, the drinks are a warm cupful of nostalgia reaching the next generation of Mexican Americans who are hungry for a taste of the quieter rancho life that their parents and grandparents might have lived. They’re also a complete breakfast loaded with vitamins, probiotics, and good cholesterol, a pick-me-up before a long day working under the hot sun.
Customers pay for a Styrofoam cup (usually around $10), or bring their own large jarro de barro (about $20), and help themselves to a self-service table spread with jars of sugar, cocoa powder, or shaved chocolate, instant coffee, and bottles of the potent sugar cane alcohol, as well as tequila — for those who aren’t ready for the 192-proof spirit. In Jalisco and other states, flavorings also might include vanilla or ground mazapan.
“From my point of view, pajaretes are a mystical drink, because it’s a beverage that transforms you, mentally, and physiologically at dawn,” says Nico Mejia, a chef and author from Manzanillo, Colima. Pajaretes, pajaretas, pájaros, palomazos, or cherecas all refer to the same basic drink, evoking an image of a bird set free — for many, free from their mind as the drink takes effect. “The trip usually lasts three to four hours,” says Mejia, describing the mild high from all the gut activity induced by mood-enhancing chocolate, beneficial bacteria, caffeine, sugar, and high-proof alcohol.
By 8:30 a.m., entire families gather here to drink pajaretes (the kids just drink chocolate milk). Meanwhile, banda, or norteño music groups, set up to play regional Mexican songs, and corridos (folk songs) for the crowd, turning the gatherings into impromptu daytime parties. Never ones to rest on laurels, creative imbibers from Jalisco have made pajaretes flameados, or flaming pajaretes, into the latest trend. Just before the milk is drawn in, someone ignites the drink with a lighter and hands the vessel to the milker, whereupon hot milk spews flames from the cup. (No animals or humans are harmed in the process.) The result, a cocktail of caramelized sugar and chocolate with warm milk, is delicious.
As for the sugar cane alcohol, Michoacano and Alcohol Tapatío (Alcohol Puro de Caña) are respected brands of ethanol alcohol at pajaretes vendors. These bottles come with lots of warnings, including no debe beberse (don’t drink this), but the high proof also helps kill any pathogens in the raw milk, similar to pasteurization, and is considered safe to drink when blended with ample milk. Most of the time a small splash is enough. In some rural parts of Mexico, adulterated sugar cane alcohol, tainted with cheaply made liquor, has produced methanol, which is poisonous, resulting in some deaths.
“You won’t find pajaretes outside of these states, and regions: Colima, Jalisco, a few parts of Nayarit and Michoacán. It’s a shared culture and tradition that evolved from the haciendas to ranches in a time before the current political divisions [of modern states],” says Mejia.
In these parts of Mexico, they’re workers’ breakfasts, often prepared informally at dairy farms or at ranches that sell pajaretes, usually located up some winding dirt road off the highway. For the ranchers, pajaretes allow them to fetch a higher price for their milk, or provide a nice side income. In Mexico, these are humble gatherings that honor local customs, so there’s no music, dancing, or buckets of beer.
But here in clandestine ranches around the greater Los Angeles area, Mexican Americans have reinvented pajaretes in their image — puro, pinche, pari (or “party until you fucking drop”). Each location is run by distinguished gentlemen with the title of Don, like Don Jesús, Don Chuy, Don Cornelio, or Don Rogelio, and they’re often respected in their communities. “Banda with pajaretes, and the party atmosphere, is a tropicalized version that is pure pocho (Mexican American), as so many things change when they cross the border,” says Mejia.
One of the largest crowds at a wildly popular pajaretes location in Muscoy fills up by 8:30 a.m., just in time for the weekly banda sinaloense (Sinaloan band) and norteño groups that perform on a large covered square, where couples dance with beers in hand. The crowd of cowboys and cowgirls tries to stay warm in the country morning air drinking pajaretes with several shots of Michoacano. They chase the pajaretes with Modelos, Pacificos, and Coronas. When the cows and goats are tapped out and have begun to rest, the party continues, while groups of family and friends sip their way through tables lined with beers, laughing, playfully ribbing, and gossiping into the early afternoon.
Far removed from the horse towns of San Bernardino County and the San Gabriel Valley, LA’s Hub City, the place that gave us NWA, the Williams sisters, and Bludso’s barbecue, makes for an unlikely place for urban pajaretes ranches. Yet for locals familiar with the Compton Cowboys, it all makes sense.
In a Compton backyard, a man walks around with his cubeta, a bucket of beers, to keep his friends hydrated. Many in the crowd double-fist pajaretes and beers to build up the courage to join in the Karaoke Show de Marilu. Marilu, the charismatic karaoke hostess, is a huge fan of Marisela, the famed Mexican American pop singer known for lover’s ballads. (Attendees can expect to hear “La Pareja Ideal” more than twice.) Up the driveway, a generous man unboxes a $200 3-liter bottle of Gran Centenario tequila añejo, and shares it with a half-dozen friends, old and new.
The special pajaretes recipe here is made with 96 percent sugar cane alcohol poured from a jug and some Christian Brothers Brandy VS that imparts a special, fruity flavor. It works great in the pajarete flameado. There’s lots of drinking, dancing, and singing along, yet the vibe is family-friendly and festive — the Mexican crowd respects the ranch while having a good time. While these are public places, you don’t just walk in without an introduction. You’ll have to connect with your friends from Jalisco, or Colima, who might have a tío that knows the spots.
The party runs seven days a week because Mexicans can’t get enough of the country air, brisk morning chill, and the cry of roosters. They anticipate a true taste of Mexico that’s in their DNA: the rancho, the banda, the horseback riding, the sombreros de vaquero (cowboy hats), and a storied beverage you can only get here. The spectacle is beautiful and the camaraderie is infectious. It’s a blend of the old-school pajaretes crowd that shows up at 5 a.m. to connect with their land, along with younger Mexican Americans from Sinaloa and other northern states drawn in by the music and culture. There are also those that haven’t gone home yet, arriving a little tipsy since leaving house parties or outlaw bars, hungry for a nourishing hangover cure. Everyone’s enamored by the ranch’s smells, the cries of roosters and other livestock, and the magical beverage that connects you to Mother Earth.
To accommodate the crowds, ranchers need a lot of cows and goats that are rotated until the milk runs out and they are returned to the stable. By 10 a.m., the crowd stumbles out and wanders off as the pajaretes vendors collect empty cans and bottles. Still, in places like Muscoy, there’s music and beer to keep the party going into the afternoon. Then the well-sated crowd slowly drifts away, vanishing until the next morning, when it starts all over again.