Canadians, for reasons unknown, love Clamato, especially in the version of the Bloody Mary known as the Caesar. My Canadian uncle used to mix beer and Clamato juice and call it a Red Eye. At first I couldn’t understood why anyone would want to drink a seafood-flavored beverage, but as a kid I was enough of an oddball to enjoy Clamato — even crave it — once I tasted it. And when my uncle was mixing up Red Eyes at family gatherings, I’d always get him to pour me a little of the seasoned tomato juice, at the time made by Mott’s.
Canada and Mexico may not have much in common, other than acting as the geographical hat and necktie of the United States, but the two nations certainly share a love of Clamato. I’d never experienced the wonder of the michelada, Mexico’s souped-up take on the Red Eye, until a 2004 trip through the center of that country exposed me to many different variations, more than one of which was concocted with the clam-flavored tomato drink. Since then, the michelada (or chelada, depending on where you’re from and what you put in it), has taken off in popularity in Mexican restaurants throughout Denver. The best, I’ve noticed, are made with Clamato, hot sauce, plenty of lime juice, a dash of something savory like Maggi seasoning or Worcestershire sauce, and cheap beer poured over ice. (Don’t bother with anything labeled “craft” or “artisanal.”)
But something else has been brewing in Mexico, mainly in the northern states of Chihuahua, Sonora and Baja California: the Clamato preparado, which takes the michelada theme and, skipping the beer, cranks the formula up to eleven. Part beverage, part snack and part base for your own adult beverage (if you’re packing beer, tequila or vodka), Clamatos preparados have been popping up at a few new Mexican eateries in town, and now there are even a handful of shops dedicated to nothing but the tangy, salty, spicy drink — along with other similar combinations of snack foods, condiments and tongue-shredding flavors.
La Changada got its start a year ago in a tiny Thornton strip-mall space alongside other Mexican businesses selling boots, jewelry, piñatas and sit-down meals. A second popped up on Federal Boulevard on the north side of the building that’s also home to Baker’s Palace (a favorite for Vietnamese banh mi) just a few weeks ago. After navigating the pot-holed parking lot and contemplating the windowless shop’s facade, the first thing you’ll notice is the tidy, professional interior of La Changada — which immediately raises the suspicion that it’s a franchise. But this is a Denver-area original, opened by Jesus Vega to bring Clamatos preparados to the city.
A list of Clamato-based drinks tops the menu, with options of shrimp, carne seca (like paper-thin beef jerky) or both. Prices vary depending on just how much meat you pile into each Styrofoam cup, and the size of the cup. Ten bucks will land you a half-dozen shrimp and a sheaf of dried beef — both doused in a thick, fire-truck-red hot sauce — nestled into a Big Gulp-sized cup of Clamato and lime juice. That may seem a little pricey, but the construction is filling, and you’ll blow past your daily allotment of sodium in a few sips. The carne seca comes in several searing flavors, like jalapeño, habanero and chile de arbol.
You can also order nachos-style mounds of chips, shrimp, carne seca, cueritos (pickled pork rind) and diced veggies (cucumber and jicama, for example), which do a great job of mitigating the burn from all the salt, vinegar and spice. Or for something sweeter but no less jarringly tangy, there are fruit-based versions with mango, pineapple and other tropical bites, along with cacahuates japoneses (peanuts with a crunchy soy-sauce coating), chewy tamarind candy and chamoy sauce. There’s so much sour, briny, peppery action going on that La Changada could make a fortune selling lip balm at extortionate rates.
A bit to the southwest, Clamatos Chuper Vasos opened a couple of months ago in what had been an upscale coffee shop called the Copper Hound (a place that, unfortunately, the neighborhood just wasn’t ready for). The new spot seems a more appropriate fit, since it’s right next door to Taqueria El Gallito and amid businesses as likely to label themselves llanteras as tire shops.
Owner Ramiro Robles got the idea for Chuper Vasos from his daughter, who originally suggested starting a franchise of a Clamatos preparados chain popular from El Paso down to coastal Mexico. But he decided he could do it better and cheaper as an independent, and the results show in his creations. Robles’s shop is as bright and shiny as La Changada, but considerably more cavernous. There’s enough room inside that a separate business to one side sells quinceañera dresses and other teen accoutrements.
Chuper Vasos features cocktails and piled-high botanas (snacks) similar to those at La Changada, but seafood options go beyond shrimp, with oysters, clams and octopus in the mix, making some of the “exoticos” more akin to the cocteles found in Mexican seafood restaurants. A meat slicer in the back of the kitchen is an indicator that Robles also creates his own carne seca from scratch. The quality of the meat makes all the difference, he explains, so he uses premium Angus beef along with chile-based seasonings. Unlike beef jerky, his carne seca is sliced ultra-thin and then air-dried so that the finished product is crunchy, not chewy — like flavorful meat paper that’s mercifully light on sodium.
Many of the customers at Chuper Vasos take their Clamatos preparados to go and add beer at home, but some of the menu items are best as is, like El Infierno, a giant cup of lime-shot Clamato topped with jicama, cueritos, mango, cucumber, bits of tamarind-chile candy and Takis, a brand of heavily seasoned potato chips that are rolled like mini-flautas. The combo is intense, but the fruit and jicama mellow everything just enough. Cups come rimmed with chamoy sauce and dipped in Tajin-brand seasoning powder for an extra blast of everything that makes these things so addictive (and so hard on the tastebuds).
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Two Clamato shops in a big city hardly make for a noteworthy trend, but preparados can be found in other venues, too. On West Alameda Avenue, El Coco Pirata — a Sinaloan seafood joint — makes a variety of beer and tequila drinks crammed with shrimp, dried beef and other ingredients for an adult version, as does Mariscos El Licenciado on Federal. For east-side residents, non-alcoholic preparados are served from a truck in the same parking lot at East Colfax and Xanthia Street that the Los Dos Hermanos taco truck calls home on weekends. You’ll see content customers wandering among the parked vehicles clutching tacos and Styrofoam cups rimmed with a sticky red combo of chamoy and Tajin. Whether these potent potions will catch on beyond the Latino community is anyone’s guess, but you’ll only be out a few bucks if you want to sample something strange and clammy.