Another summer in the Cherokee Street business district, where the pigeons outnumber people by a dozen to one, and Hispanics outnumber Caucasians by nearly as much. The heat has washed in a little early this year, but the pigeons seem to be taking it in stride, and the humans aren't too far behind.
We roast on La Vallesana's emergency-green concrete patio at lunch, drinking a cup of horchata. The sun-brellas are failing. The pavement screams heat, and the humidity nestles deep into the lungs. A breeze blows hot and dusty as a Monte Carlo passes. It's jamming Trick Daddy and Cee-Lo's spring anthem, "Sugar (Gimme Some)." All that shows of the low-down driver is a Cardinals cap. Across the city, the subwoofers are oiled up, ready to hum. Car-stereo season has arrived.
St. Louis seems to be of two minds when it comes to summer. Some of its residents hide away in vacuum-sealed AC environments. They experience heat while whining and waddling from the doorway to the car and back. Others live in the heat. It's summer, after all. Why fight it? Accept it. Let the heat nestle in your very cells. Let the sweat pour forth, then wash it down with a cold shower.
Just make sure to drink lots of fluids.
Horchata used to be called orchata, and it traveled from Egypt to Spain to Mexico before it arrived in St. Louis. Unlike Mexican horchata, the original version is made from chufa (a.k.a. tiger nut), which is soaked overnight, then mashed, pushed through cheesecloth and flavored with cinnamon (and maybe vanilla).
The Mexicans, however, use rice and almonds instead of chufa. Most recipes suggest grinding the two ingredients and soaking the mix in cold water overnight. The brew is then strained, infused with cinnamon and sugar and served up cold. Served icy, horchata is like sweet honey milk without the lactose.
La Vallesana's right in the heart of Mexican enclave. You'll know it by the mural that's been painted on its eastern façade, which depicts a bountiful farmer's stand. The tiny takeout place makes a mean veggie quesadilla -- cheese, potatoes, guacamole, lettuce and tomato -- for a mere three bucks. At lunch it even comes with chips, guacamole and a smoky salsa. Eat up good, and order a $1.50 horchata. Served in a big white Styrofoam cup with a straw, it's a perfect specimen, rich and milky, with a hint of almond and a lot of rice. It has more density than other varieties along Cherokee. La Vallesana's almost tastes like a vanilla milkshake, which is a wonderful thing on summer afternoon when the sun is at a distinct advantage, when even the ants are burning their feet on the pavement.