Drink of the Week: Horchata

4601 S Kingshighway

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Drink of the Week: Horchata

Lily's, 4601 S Kingshighway; 314-352-1894

"My mom will bring the fruit out for you in just a minute." Great, we say. We're the first customers of the day at Lily's on Kingshighway, a Mexican restaurant known almost as much for its family atmosphere (literally) as it is for its made-from-scratch Mexican cuisine. In this case, "Mom" refers to Adela Esparza, who, along with her husband, Salvador, and their kids, cheerfully operate Lily's six days a week and together comprise one of the nicest restaurant families we've ever met.

There is something maternal and knowing about Adela. On our first visit, we placed our order and asked for a side of sour cream with our entrée — an afterthought. Adela paused. Uh oh. Even from the soft-spoken woman, her silence spoke volumes. She was happy to accommodate our request, but politely suggested that the dish would be better without it. She was right, and the white stuff sat blankly on our table, untouched.

Ever since, we've tried to make a conscious effort to not play with our food at Lily's on the premise that mami and papá know best. Yet even now we absentmindedly grab the saltshaker and sprinkle the granules over our refried beans as though it were an involuntary reflex. We stop, feeling guilty when Adela passes by, and coolly slide our elbows off the tabletop.

In walks a family of three whom Adela cheerfully greets in Spanish and chats with for a while. We make mental notes as we watch the father, who looks Hispanic, add salt to his lime and push it into the neck of his Negra Modelo: This use of salt appears to be acceptable. Our companion wishes out loud that he'd get the chance to speak Spanish more frequently, and his mouth contorts like a gasping trout's as he tries to recall the nuances and inflections of the language he picked up by bits and pieces while living in Southern California.

Meanwhile, our horchata arrives. Horchata, a dry-erase board up on the wall tells us, is rice water. And at Lily's, it's only available on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Salvador says they make it by soaking the rice overnight then adding milk, condensed milk, cinnamon and sugar. He says he plays with the ingredients a bit each time he makes it, so it never turns out the same way twice. It comes over ice in a utilitarian 32-ounce Styrofoam cup with a straw, and at first taste, it reminds us of lightweight eggnog. A few sips later, we decide it's more like chai tea that leaves a slightly dusty residue on the tongue — like the milk at the bottom of a bowl of cereal (Cinnamon Toast Crunch springs to mind) that's sweet and powdery all at the same time. It's nearly translucent, the color of light-brown sand.

"I'd better eat my beans so they don't think I'm some stupid gringo," our companion says, dragging his fork through the pile like a street sweeper. And that's funny because in different ways we're both trying to prove that we deserve a place at the Esparza's gracious table. But just by virtue of being here, surrounded by the warmth the family exudes in everything they do, makes us feel we already have.

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