I recently saw this sign, advertising “vegetarian tamales.” Fillings include spinach, mushrooms and squash flowers. Furthermore, they are made without the traditional lard, and as substitutes use olive and sunflower oils. I’m all for good health, but sorry, kids, I would call these things something like “moist vegetable corn pastries” — without meat or lard, they don’t deserve the noble name of tamales. On that curmudgeonly note, have a happy new year, gang.
Somehow the Salon España, a traditional cantina in the centro histórico at the corner of Calle Argentina and Calle Luis González Obregón, had escaped my radar until fairly recently. The botanas — free food served along with your drinks — are excellent, and the chamorro (pork shank), served every Friday, is exceptional. But what is truly extraordinary is their selection of tequilas. They have 230, all of them in stock, including some favorites of mine that are extremely hard to find in Mexico City, like Chamucos, Centinela and El Tesoro.
Groups of wandering minstrels known as estudiantinas go back to the first universities in Spain, in the late 12th century. They were bands of impoverished students who, to survive, would play music in the streets and pass the hat afterwards. You still find them in Mexico City, particularly on weekends, roaming through the restaurants of the centro histórico. They will typically stay in each eatery and play several numbers. As they are groups of six or more musicians, their warbling, strumming and unbearably unstinting cheer invariably drown out the conversation at your table. As such, talk must be suspended until they leave. Call me a grouch, but I never give them money — I don’t want to encourage them. After more than 800 years, I believe it is time to designate the estudiantiana to its rightful place in history, and banish it to the scrap heap.
Some readers know I am from New York but have called Mexico City my home since 1990. The other important axis of my geography is New Orleans. It is the place to which I left home when I was 17 years old — the first place I actually chose to live in. The least American of U.S. cities, it is often compared to a Caribbean island, a Mediterranean locale, or the northernmost African outpost. Comparisons are odious and New Orleans is unique. Last month I rented an apartment there and for the moment am dividing my time between it and Mexico City.
Perhaps it speaks ill of me that I believe one of the two hallmarks of a civilized city is the possibility of getting a drink until very late at night. In New Orleans there are bars that are open twenty-four hours a day. It is also legal to carry your drink in the street from one bar to another, so long as it is in a plastic “go cup” (glass or tin cans get you into beaucoup trouble).
(For the record, my other hallmark of a civilized city is a well-functioning public transportation system. Let’s not even talk about the disastrous one in New Orleans — yet. Suffice it to say that Mexico City’s is like Paris or London in comparison.)
Corner bars like the Mayfair at 1505 Amelia Street, around the bend from the Columns Hotel, give the city a great part of its identity. Christmas decorations are lit all year round. Drinks are inexpensive and they have an excellent juke box. I cannot guarantee that the minute you walk through the door you will be treated as if you were a regular, but Miss Gertie, the owner, certainly made me feel like family the afternoon this photo was taken.