The sun hasn’t risen, yet here I am at the back of a line, in the middle of a dirt patch, clutching a ceramic mug, my jarrito. Crowing roosters and bellowing cows belie the fact that I’m just 35 minutes east of Downtown. At the other end of the queue is a flimsy table stocked with jars of sugar, Nescafé, chocolate powder with cinnamon, and a bottle labeled “not suitable for human consumption.” Just beyond that stands a trio of cows—live ones—with two milkers on hand to keep up with the growing crowd.
Five dollars gets you a small Styrofoam cup, but it’s $8 to fill the jarrito, which, when it’s my turn, I hand to the man running the show. He fills it with a blend of fixings and the mystery bottle’s contents (pure sugarcane hooch) and gives it back to me for the final ingredient. I lower my cup beneath the udders of the cow to receive a warm stream of fresh milk. I thank the guy manning the glands, then toss back my cup of pajarete.
It happens exactly like this in rural towns across Jalisco, Mexico, where dairy hands reward themselves after a long morning’s work with a little taste before sending the cows back out to graze. Here in L.A. County, pajarete draws a mix of blue-collar workers starting the day with a buzz and revelers straight from the clubs trying to keep one going. My spiked chocolate milk has a clean, grassy taste punctuated by the hot sting of high-proof booze. There’s something else, though: the sense of animals, hay, cow patties, and mud that add an aroma of country to each frothy swallow. By 6 a.m. the cows are done and it’s time to get some breakfast. I hear there’s a house nearby that serves the best birría in town—on the sly.