But before visiting major landmarks, I started at two of the city's oldest horchaterias: Horchatería Santa Catalina and Horchatería El Siglo. These two shops specializing in Spanish horchata—a sweet, milky, refreshing drink made with water, tiger nuts, and sugar (learn more about it in my post about visiting a horchata factory)—are just across from each other in Plaza de Santa Catalina. They're know as two of the best and oldest horchaterias in the city, with Santa Catalina boasting two centuries of business on its sign ("Casa con dos siglos de tradicion") and El Siglo pushing 175 years since its opening in 1936.
With two famous horchaterias so close to each other, there was only one natural thing to do: Try both, one right after the other.
Horchatería Santa Catalina
Horchatería Santa Catalina gets the distinction of being the first mention on Google when you search for "horchateria."
It won't earn a plaque like the one that commemorates the dates Santa Catalina was visited by Infanta Isabella, but in this age, it's something.
Walk through the large dining room whose walls feature painted tiles from Manises and at the end you'll see a large case full of neatly arranged fartons.
Yup, fartons. Get those giggles out; they're just lightly sweetened, soft and light breadsticks, sometimes topped with a thin layer of icing, designed to have the right texture suitable for dipping in horchata, not so much for being eaten by themselves. Fartons haven't been around nearly as long as horchata—they were invented by Polo Bakery in the 1960s and horchata dates back to the 13th century—but these days they're commonly eaten with horchata and sold in bakeries, supermarkets, and horchaterias. Santa Catalina makes their own fartons in plain, chocolate, and cream flavors.
My first impression when I tried Santa Catalina's horchata (€2.60) was that it was creamy and very sweet—perhaps too sweet. Since it was the first time I had ever drank Spanish horchata, I didn't have anything to compare it to, but it seemed like it could've been more flavorful. Still, it tasted good because it's hard for the combination of sweet and creamy not to.
Tasting the horchata by way of a soaked farton balanced out its sweetness. The sugar-dusted farton (€0.80) was very light and soft, and layered on the inside—more croissant-like than bready. It soaked up the horchata well.
Horchateria Santa Catalina
Horchatería El Siglo
Horchatería El Siglo has more of an intimate, homey feel than Santa Catalina, with bar seating up front, a separate room with seating, and a small balcony that looks over the bar.
Right away, I liked their horchata (€2) more than Santa Catalina's. It wasn't as sweet and had a stronger tiger nut flavor, a bit like soy milk, but more robust.
Compare to Santa Catalina, El Siglo's farton (€0.50) was much breadier—which is what I expected a farton to be like—and, on its own, didn't taste nearly as good. Then again, a plain farton isn't meant to be eaten on its own; it's a horchata sponge. In this case, it fulfilled its purpose well and tasted just fine soaked in horchata.
The results of the Battle of the Horchaterias: I'd pick El Siglo for horchata, but Santa Catalina for fartons—which means, overall, I'd go with El Siglo. (And to give my uneducated American taste buds some integrity, two of my hosts in Valencia also picked El Siglo over Santa Catalina.)
Horchatería El Siglo
Plaza de Santa Catalina, 11, 46001 Valencia, Spain (map)
34 96 391-8466
About the author: Robyn Lee is the editor of A Hamburger Today and takes many of the photos for Serious Eats. She'll also doodle cute stuff when necessary. Read more from Robyn at her personal food blog, The Girl Who Ate Everything.