When I visit a taqueria, I prefer to drink Mexican Coke or mineral water with my meal. However, when outside temperatures and humidity lead to anguish—as they have this summer—only the sweet and colorful drinks known as aguas frescas (literally, “fresh waters”) can help cure the seasonal depression.
To prepare the drinks, vendors muddle, blend, steep, and/or compress fruits such as watermelon or cucumber, or other ingredients like hibiscus flowers or rice. Then they mix the ingredients with water or another liquid and sugar to produce a cooling beverage.
The aforementioned ingredients produce aguas frescas flavors sandía, pepino, jamaica (pronounced “ha-mai-kah”), and horchata, respectively. These drinks come in vibrant hues of pink, green, crimson, and cream, and those are just the standard colors. I’ve stopped in my tracks while walking through mercados in Mexico when encountering a stock of beautiful aguas frescas in traditional barrel-shaped plastic vessels.
In common lore, the history of aguas frescas begins in precolonial Mexico. The Mexica, whom we know as the Aztecs, are said to have concocted produce-based beverages chilled with ice from nearby volcanoes. Regardless of the veracity of their origins, aguas frescas have been culturally important for a long time—so important that they were immortalized in Édouard Pingret’s 1852 painting Vendedora de aguas frescas. As vital as they were to document in fine art, aguas frescas carry a lot of nostalgia for those who grew up drinking them.
Michelle Pérez, co-owner of Carnitas Don Raúl and La Bendita in San Antonio and a native of Morelia in the Mexican state of Michoacán, says the drinks evoke specific memories. “They remind me very much when I was a little girl and my parents took me for an agua fresca at La Michoacana, a very famous frozen treats shop in Mexico,” she recalls. Later Pérez’s parents prepared and sold a rotating selection of aguas frescas at their taqueria, the original Carnitas Don Raúl. “I had a proper schooling in the production of aguas frescas,” Pérez says. “My mother also made aguas of all flavors at home.”
Her beverage business, La Bendita, is an offshoot of the carnitas truck she owns with her husband, Martin Muñoz, and an expansion of her parents’ restaurant. La Bendita’s enclosed space—about the size of a hut—doubles as an air-conditioned ordering station for Carnitas Don Raúl.
The space previously housed an art gallery. Owner Blair Davies approached Muñoz and Pérez about taking over the spot in the Broadway News food truck park. They didn’t hesitate, and La Bendita opened in April of 2021. It’s been busy ever since.
My family and I recently visited during a 100-plus-degree day, and the line snaked outside the building and onto the wood deck. There were three aguas available when we arrived: horchata, cucumber-lime, and jamaica. My wife had decided on cucumber-lime before we even walked up to the shop, so I was nervous when I saw the container of her drink choice nearly empty. I alerted my wife to the situation and the likelihood that she wouldn’t get her first choice. When I asked Pérez, working behind the counter, if there was any more cucumber-lime, she answered in the affirmative before reaching for another container to replace the almost depleted one. All of us were filled with relief as we took our first sips.
While Muñoz and Pérez offer traditional preparations, Reyna and Maritza Vazquez, owners of Veracruz Fonda, in Austin, take the classic flavors full throttle. The sisters’ aguas frescas are akin to slushies, with ice made from the aguas blended in. “We don’t want them watering down too much,” Maritza says. Drinking the sandía felt as if a breeze had quickly gone through me.
Sisters Vicki and Sophie Ochoa, owners of Aguas Chicas in Dallas, are anything but traditional in their approach. The siblings started their pop-up in April with a mix of traditional and more creative options such as dragon fruit lemonade and pineapple with chamoy and Tajín. The aguas are served in pouches, and customers can ask for additions such as strawberry boba pearls. The Topo Chica, which blends an agua fresca with Topo Chico, is dressed up with chamoy on the rim. The Ochoas are usually busy serving their fresh drinks at markets, shops, and Four Corners Brewing Company on weekends. It was at the last’s taproom where I picked up a dragon fruit with boba pearls and a pineapple agua for a friend and myself.
While their aguas differ in preparation and flavors, the Vazquez sisters and the Ochoa sisters share Pérez’s sentiments about the beverage. Nostalgia in the face of transformation was the genesis of Aguas Chicas. Growing up in East Dallas, it was normal for the Ochoa sisters to go out with their family for aguas frescas every Sunday. In the last few years, though, they noticed how much their section of Dallas was changing. “Seeing our neighborhood kind of just gentrifying a little bit and seeing those mom-and-pop businesses disappear, we wanted to bring those flavors and that little cultural touch of our neighborhood back,” Vicki Ochoa says.
During an interview for a story about Veracruz Fonda, Maritza Vazquez added in Spanish, “[Drinking aguas frescas] is like traveling back in time and reliving moments of time. They’re memories.” Veracruz Fonda, Aguas Chicas, and La Bendita focus on quality, too. “I’m very demanding about the quality of our products,” Pérez says of La Bendita. “We don’t cut corners because we know our customers are paying for the best possible drink, not just flavored water.”
Not everyone is as keyed into the handmade craft of aguas frescas. I’ve had plenty of sugary aguas frescas across the state, all of which were made from powders. Aguas frescas have also been the subject of cultural appropriation, like burger tacos. Last June, TikToker Gracie Norton raved about “spa water,” a water-based fruit drink she claimed had healthful qualities. She shared the recipe in the video, and it was widely viewed. Soon after, some creators pointed out that the trending video didn’t acknowledge the history and artistry of aguas frescas.
The drink is so integral to Mexican and Texas culture that artists have printed its image on Lotería-style cards, shirts, cups, trinkets, refrigerator magnets, and more. To preserve the integrity of aguas frescas, it’s essential to respect the craft. Otherwise, we’re no different from spa water acolytes.
Dallas pop-ups announced via Instagram.