The sidewalks are slick outside and the windows are covered with steam inside, where pots of soup and mole simmer and the smell of chiles, tortillas and carnitas waft through the air. At this time of year, a plate of tamales robed in rich red chile or Colorado-style green chile at one of Denver's neighborhood Mexican joints is one of the best ways to drive off the winter chill. But if you want to go from shivering to toasty in a matter of minutes with a dose of Mexican holiday tradition, a cup of champurrado is the right accompaniment for your tamales.
But champurrado isn't exactly easy to find on Denver restaurant menus. It's generally a seasonal drink that's announced with nothing more than a sign by the cash register — a sign most gringos will overlook. But Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without it for many Mexicans. "Mexicans know that the real reason for the season isn't Jesus; it's champurrado, a drink that perfectly complements tamales for cold, wintry days," says Gustavo Arellano, creator of ¡Ask a Mexican!, editor of the OC Weekly and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. "The best champurrados are thick, sweet, and must be drunk scalding. Salud!"
What, exactly, is champurrado? In short, it's atole with chocolate. But then, what's atole? That, amigos, is a thick, hot beverage made with corn masa and sweetened with piloncillo (dark-brown cane sugar). Recipes vary, but cinnamon and vanilla are not uncommon ingredients. At El Taco Veloz on Federal Boulevard, champurrado is served dense and heavy with the taste of maize. There's a touch of chocolate, but the dominant flavors are almost savory, with hints of roasted chile in the mix. But according to Arellano, the best champurrado should be frothy, not dense.
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A few blocks south, at Tarasco's New Latino Cuisine, champurrado is an off-menu special, but if you're not on the run, you can have it served in an earthenware mug. Tarasco's serves dozens of blended fruit and vegetable drinks along with dishes from the Mexican state of Michoacan, so serving up a frothy mug of chocolate-y champurrado is second nature for the kitchen. Cinnamon, masa and chocolate are equally balanced in the comforting drink — just the thing to bring out the best in the house tamal de elote or tamal Oaxaqueño.
Across town on East Hampden Avenue, El Trompito also ladles up a thick and foamy champurrado with plenty of chocolate. Try it with the restaurant's excellent mixiote de borrego or just ask for a side of warm corn tortillas for dunking.