Mexico City cantinas

Mr. Clean, the Tortilla King and a couple of Cuba Libres

Photo by Ana Hop

Few readers will need me to recommend the Bar Zinco, a jazz joint in the centro histórico located in what used to be the basement vaults of a bank. With red velvet curtains, black walls and exposed brick, it is a little like a jazz club from an old movie, and far cooler than most such places in New York.

The Zinco Big Band, composed of seventeen of Mexico City's best musicians, only plays once in a blue moon. If you are lucky enough to notice that they are doing a gig, don't think twice, just go. You're bound to enjoy their recreations of arrangements by Count Basie, Nelson Riddle, Charles Mingus and Thad Jones.

Here they are on a recent night with a New York singer named J.D. Walter, who performed a couple of sets of Sinatra numbers, punctuated by his continuous remarks that he doesn't regularly sing Sinatra numbers. Walter wore an earring in each ear, a look that, combined with a shaven head, suggested the words, "stronger than dirt."

Photo by Ana Hop

The band is conducted by Eugenio Elias, the gentleman in the dinner jacket central in the above photo. The caballero with the moustache at the extreme right of the picture is Don Roberto González Barrera, who owns Maseca, the corn flour from which most of Mexico's tortillas are made, as well as Banorte, one of the country's most prominent banks. He regularly appears on the lists of staggeringly wealthy people published by Forbes magazine. According to one of the owners, he shows up at the Zinco frequently.

Apparently, one way that Don Roberto stays so rich is by bringing his own liquor to bars -- he and his blonde companion arrived at Zinco with a bottle of Aniversario, a Venezuelan rum that is exquisite as cognac and not so easy to find in Mexico. Sadly, they diluted that good liquor with Coca Cola.

Click here to see more work by Ana Hop, the lovely and talented photographer responsible for the above photos.

Back in business

Several readers expressed interest in El Jarrito, the cantina that I mentioned in the vignette that ran in the New York Times earlier this month. I returned a few days ago and was relieved and delighted to find it reopened.

This fellow came in, ordered a beer, and immediately went to sleep. Perhaps he was exhausted from all the stress related to the swine flu, or maybe his reading material -- the Federal District's Civil Agenda -- was too soporific to keep him conscious.

Unfortunately the waitress about whom I wrote was not working that evening. The cheerful one who served our drinks agreed to pose for a picture, but her smile disappeared as the camera snapped.

Clandestine charm


About eight years ago my friend Sergio González Rodríguez “discovered” a tiny, hole-in-the-wall dive called El Bull Pen on Calle Medellín near Calle Yucatán in the Colonia Roma. At the time, it had a certain clandestine charm (that remained elusive to many) – one got the sense that anything was obtainable at the Bull Pen, if you lived long enough to obtain it. (This is not precisely a joke. At least a couple of friends were mugged while leaving the Bull Pen late at night, one of them by a policeman.)






In any case, Sergio published an article about the place in the newspaper Reforma, and the Bull Pen became incredibly (you might say insufferably) popular, particularly among the hippy-ish young. The place expanded to the property next door, live rock bands played at earsplitting volume ... it struck me as way too much of a good thing.






Then it closed down. For what at least seemed like years. This happens often to such places in Mexico City, and it is usually assumed that the owners haven’t paid the requisite bribes, or the person who was accepting the bribes can no longer protect them, or they have made so much money that it no longer matters … variations on a theme. The Bull Pen recently reopened its doors, now back to being a tiny hole-in-the-wall. We’ll see how long it lasts in its present incarnation.

The only martini in Mexico City



Although I wouldn’t go out of my way to dine at the San Ángel Inn, the patio of the restaurant is one of the loveliest places to have a drink in the world – at least in the parts of the world I have visited. It is located in an ex-hacienda from the late 18th century, and when the weather is warm, sitting there among the hummingbirds and bougainvillea is enchanting.






People who drink margaritas swear by the San Angel Inn’s version of them. (I try to avoid them because sweet drinks are deceptive – they go to my head before I notice.)





I like martinis but tend to be impossibly picky about them. The San Ángel Inn is the only bar in Mexico City where I will drink one. Or two. (The city is crowded with trendy joints that make chocolate, vanilla and strawberry martinis. That these drinks are called “martinis” at all strikes me as sacrilege.)





Aside from knowing how to mix them, the best thing about the martinis here is their presentation – in miniature silver pitchers within miniature silver ice buckets. This is not just an aesthetic consideration. The ice assures that they are freezing cold, and temperature is the most important thing about a martini. The potato chips served alongside are made at the restaurant. Drinking doesn't get much better than this.