As the readers of this fine publication know, I am fond of classic Mexican cantinas. I started in the Long Bar in Tijuana and Hussong’s in Ensenada during the mid-60s, and since then these unique drinking establishments have become a source of cultural immersion and quality entertainment for my idle hours.
All cities and most small towns throughout Mexico have cantinas and I have visited a number of them over the last 40 years.
The purpose of this column is to save you the reader’s time and trouble in the search for a cantina with the proper savoir-faire. My research has brought me to the conclusion there are distinctly different types of cantinas available for this consummate form of cultural adventure.
Different places in Mexico may offer slightly different experiences, but the relatively true Mexican flavor of the city I live in allows a range of involvement levels.
Starting at the bottom of the heap is what I refer to as the black-hole cantina; dismal dens of beer, booze and barely breathable odors that will cause a gag reflex in even the most courageous of cantina connoisseurs.
The main attraction of the black-hole cantina is not the dirt floors, the overflowing toilets or complete lack of toilets, or the rickety chairs; it is the 22-peso liters and the 12-peso shots of questionable tequila, which could easily be substituted for paint thinner.
The patrons of these lugubrious drinkeries are the downtrodden men at the very bottom of the social strata, so disenchanted with life the loathsome ambience of the black-hole cantina befits their dark countenance. The squalid premises of these cantinas are not a place to enjoy on a Saturday afternoon.
The step up from the black-hole is the no-frills cantina which is only found in the seedier neighborhoods. These places will have sticky floors and minimally functioning restrooms, and you might be able to take a breath without running for the exit.
The liter bottles of beer go for 26 or 28 pesos and the shots of tequila are 16 to 20 pesos for something that at least resembles the sacred liquor of Mexico. These types of cantinas are easy to recognize because the visage of the patrons reflects that of the socially defeated; the gloom of struggle without benefit.
These patrons are older and have accepted a certain cheerless resignation with their lives. Few people are conversing; most have that 1,000-yard stare while waiting for intoxication to ease some dark and dismal personal anguish.
These sleazy establishments can also be x-rated, with streaming porn on several TV sets hung from the ceiling in protective cages. The clientele of an x-rated cantina often sit one to a table with their eyes locked on the naked and gyrating bodies beaming out in full color with lots of close-ups.
Many times these places will have a few bar girls who can be available for double duty if the price is right. Though not as completely depressing as the black hole, these marginal cantinas are never sanguine and should be avoided by the inquisitive Anglo.
The middle-tier cantinas will have patrons of all ages conversing and generally enjoying themselves. There will be a couple of solo patrons seriously in their cups, but they can add a bit of harmless comedy to the ambience. The restrooms are, if not sanitary, at least useable. But don’t expect toilet seats or an abundance of — or sometimes any — toilet paper.
Many of these mainstream cantinas are decorated with colorful murals and employ bar girls who are always smiling and who engage the regulars with colorful banter. Many of these cantinas provide a festive atmosphere which will amuse and entertain even the most seasoned of cantina-goers, while being perfectly safe for the novice.
The top-tier cantinas possess an atmosphere akin to an exclusive fiesta, an animated men’s club with a jovial undercurrent. The clientele is there for the collective enjoyment of their fellow man and the cheap beverages which become the liquefied lubricants to keep it all flowing.
Here you can strike up a conversation with those at an adjacent table and find yourself laughing and enjoying your new friends whether or not either speaks the same language.
The barmaids are smiling and friendly while providing exemplary service that keeps your drinks topped up. The restrooms are mostly clean and free of foul or fetid odors.
These cantinas will have the new style digital jukeboxes with thousands of selections of both Mexican songs and good old classic rock. Having Anglos feed pesos into these monster music makers while the cantina, as well as the surrounding neighborhood, is serenaded by the Stones or Pink Floyd, is applauded by all.
Many of the better cantinas will provide botanas, or in English, a free lunch. Botanas can be bean soup, fried fish, a spicy tripe soup, different cuts of seasoned and deep-fried pork, chicken in green sauce or mini meatballs in a chile sauce and all with mounds of the ubiquitous tortillas.
As long as you continue to order drinks the barmaids will keep the botanas coming. This Mexican style free lunch is normally served around noon and continues into the afternoon. These upper-tier bars still have all the authentic cantina requirements: no views in or out, bargirls not waiters, no menus and bargain alcohol.
If you are ready to take the plunge and sample a slice of this coarse side of the macho culture, please be advised that you need to adhere to a basic set of rules. Cantina hours for Anglos should be between noon and seven in the evening and of course, going with friends is always best.
Always project a sense of self-confidence tempered with a bit of humility. Do not wear lewd t-shirts or funny hats purchased in the tourist traps; dress down for the excursion, lose the jewelry and never, ever, look like you have just fallen off a cruise ship.
Smile a lot; don’t be offended by intoxicated patrons attempting to make your acquaintance. Never engage the locals in contests of strength or skill, this will only end badly no matter who wins. Always graciously accept any drinks purchased for you by another patron even if you don’t want or need it.
Always have an exit strategy and be prepared for its implementation at a moment’s notice. Never order any drinks that have sissy names or might come with a miniature umbrella. Better yet, stick to beer and shots of tequila; displaying a bit of macho is only beneficial.
So please, take these words of questionable wisdom and go forth, swill cerveza with a few friends and rub elbows with some locals you will never meet at a fundraiser. But, by all means have fun!
Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time on the west coast of Mexico with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. If you wish to give him cold beer, large sacks of money or a piece of your mind, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.