Entertainment | Restaurants & Dining | March 2008
|Top 10 Cantinas in Mexico City|
Jo Tuckman - Guardian.co.uk
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Nights out or even long, languid lunches in the Mexican capital can be rather rootless affairs with not much that is obviously Mexican about them. But between the European-style bistros and the hipster bars, a resilient band of cantinas stand as a reminder of the real way to down a tequila with sangrita.
|Mexican spirit ... a resilient band of cantinas stand as a reminder of the real way to down a tequila with sangrita. (Corbis)|
Rudimentary bars with a few tables and chairs, the cantina's golden age was in the 1940s and 50s, a time when no Mexican film seemed complete without the hero drowning his sorrows in their shadowy embrace. The overbearing machista atmosphere has largely faded away, although the more traditional cantinas are still predominantly male. But last week, Mexicans said adios to smoke-filled cantinas.
Typically, cantinas have simple décor, ageing waiters in formal uniforms and mariachi minstrels roaming around the tables. There are free nibbles (for example, botanas, a little bowl of shrimp soup, as shellfish is believed to be good for hangovers), but the lunch menu extends to such staples as sopa Azteca (chicken, chilli, cheese, corn tortillas and avocado), a few tacos filled with cochinita pibil (pork cooked with bitter oranges and chilli), birria de chivo (spicy goat kid stew) or torta de pavo (turkey slathered with nutty, hot and often chocolaty mole sauce between two large bits of bread.)
The oldest of them all, with the licence number 001, was El Nivel. Opened in 1855, it was famous for a clientele that ran from presidents to revolutionaries, artists to bureaucrats, poets to street vendors. Its closure this year prompted a campaign organised by dedicated regulars. They remain adamant that it will reopen, but in the meantime here are some alternatives.
1. Salon Tenampa
Over-the-top, unashamedly tacky and quite wonderful, El Tenampa is even more famous than El Nivel because it is on the tourist trail. The Salon Tenampa was opened in 1923 by a native of the state of Jalisco, where mariachis originated in the 19th century. It soon became the centre of mariachi activity in the capital as the bands left their folksy provincial image behind on their way to becoming spangle-suited popular icons of Mexicanness encouraged by post-revolutionary nation building. Most of the great singers of mariachi music have at least struck up a tune in the Tenampa, from the pencil moustached Pedro Infante to the more ebullient Vicente Fernandez, and the king of falsetto Miguel Aceves – and a good few are painted in murals on the walls.
· Plaza Garbialdi #12, Colonia Centro, salontenampa.com Open until 3am weekdays, 4am weekends
The huge and rather elegant Covadonga is one of the few cantinas that has successfully turned traditional into trendy. The décor hasn´t changed that much, retaining the antique bar and square wooden tables that can easily be moved around to accommodate large groups, but the clientele has transformed from domino-playing regulars to the young on a retro night out. The menu features nominally Spanish food, with tortilla Espanola and jamon Serrano. Avoid the Roquefort salad - it is a disaster.
· Puebla #121, Colonia Roma. Open until 2am.
3. Bar Montejo
A more down-to-earth model, Bar Montejo is a multi-floored pale yellow monstrosity that somehow manages to feel close to cosy. At its busiest on a Friday night when it fills with office workers loosening their ties, this really is a place dedicated to drinking and banter. The sopa de lima is a tasty option, a bitter lime chicken soup from the Yucatan peninsula, and suckling pig is the speciality.
· Benjamin Franklin #261. corner with Nuevo Leon, Colonia Condesa. Open until 1am.
4. El Centenario
A small cantina with tiled walls and a pretty wooden bar right in the heart of the frenetically fashionable district of La Condesa. A drink here can feel refreshingly normal amid the kind of mixed crowd you might find in a local pub but will rarely come across in the restaurants outside. The prices, however, make no such concessions. Expect to pay about £3 for a tequila that might cost you half that in a cantina in a less popping part of town.
Vicente Suarez #42, Colonia Condesa. Open until midnight
5. La Polar
Located in a once grand area that has long since begun to crumble but is now undergoing a renaissance with the help of a slew of new private art galleries, El Polar is a classic in all senses. Except, that is, for its unusual claim to be a "family cantina". This leads to the rare sight of children accompanying their parents for a drink, and a certain cap on excess. It is also known for a dish called Oreja de Elephante - two large pieces of veal that look like an elephant´s ears.
· Guillermo Prieto 129, corner with Melchor Ocampo, Colonia San Rafael. Open until 1am
6. La Opera
Opened in 1876, La Opera is rather uncharacteristically ornate for a cantina. Amid the velvet drapes and chandeliers, you can order Huachinango a la Veracruzana (red snapper with olives and tomatoes), eel stuffed with avocado and a considerable selection of Spanish-style tapas from jamon Serrano to boquerones. But for all the flourishes, and the steady stream of tourists who find there way here, La Opera retains an aura of authenticity and a considerable dollop of charm. Look up at the bullet hole in the ceiling directly above one of the booths opposite the bar – it was reputedly put there by Pancho Villa.
· 5 de Mayo #10, esquina con Filomena Mata, Colonia Centro. Open until 10.30pm
7. El Leon de Oro
A mid-sized cantina in a residential area with a relaxed atmosphere, Leon de Oro is one of the better places to actually have a conversation surrounded by others doing the same. It is also ideal for getting into the spirit of a national football match. Geometric stained glass windows in shades of gold and brown and golden domes add a touch of 60s and 70s kitsch to the interior. Locals swear by the tastiness of the lengua a la veracruzana (tongue with olives and tomatoes) and the quality of the tortillas.
· Avenida Marti #103, Colonia Escandon. Open until midnight
8. La Guadalupana
The Guadalupana has long been a favourite of the intelligentsia living in the colonial beauty of the Coyoacan area where Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Troksky once roamed. It is also one of the few cantinas worth visiting in the south of the city. A recent makeover in a rather nondescript style has scrubbed away some of the charm of this simple cantina where the only music was the sound of people talking. It is still friendly and simple, but the pictures have come off the walls and the whole place seems a bit too squeaky clean for the genre.
· Higuera #2, Colonia Coyoacan. Open until midnight
9. La Faena
Worth a visit just for its oddness, La Faena occupies a large cavernous space in the bowels of an old building in the heart of the city centre. Bullfighting paintings, posters and photographs adorn the walls. The dust-covered displays in glass cases range from lights that no longer twinkle to mannequins decked out in the whole matador regalia striking suitably haughty poses.
· Venustiana Carranza 49-B, Colonia Centro. Open until 10pm
10. El Centauro
Traditional cantina with formica-topped tables and adorned with murals of Mexican celebrities past and almost present, some dressed up as revolutionaries. These include the biggest stars of the golden age of Mexican cinema – Pedro Infante and Maria Felix. Popular nibbles on offer are huaraches (corn tortillas filled with refried beans) and pancita (tripe in a chilli broth).
· Division del norte 2216, Colonia Portales. Open until midnight