Friday, September 10, 2010

Tales of the Cantina-Cantina Dos Naciones,DF: 60 Years of Bros and Putazos

Don't kid yourself. Cantinas may be the lastest fad in Mexico City, or even a tourist draw, but it's a little like a wild animal park. Every now and then, one of the attractions lashes out.

Cantinas are traditionally the dominion of men.It's a drinking establishment to pass the hours, drown your sorrows, hug and eulogize your best buddy, and to teeter precariously on a worn barstool.

The character and charm of each cantina resides in the bartenders, waiters, and managers. Each server seems to take an interest in promoting the cantina and its food, and delivering personal service.

These days the cantinas are more accepting.The ladies are welcome in most all of the cantinas now, but some are still preserved in time, and oblivious to modern norms. It is noticeable that some cantinas are more coed than others, and that cantinas get different clientele a different times of the day. Lunch and happy hour are festive and the crowds are mixed, but it's at those other times when a cantina shows its true nature.

For more than 60 years Dos Naciones has been a fixture in the Centro Historico(Historic city center), on Calle Bolivar, where one can stumble to and from several other legendary cantinas in the area. They call themselves a museum of shots and machismo, El Museo de Tragos y Arrabal.

Cantinas are brilliant. Buy three drinks and the items on the menu of the day are ON the house. The more you drink, the more you order.It's free! The cantinas tend to start offering you your first plate right away, but I have no problem sticking to a three drink minimum. Easy! I'll even raise you three shots of tequila.

Each day a menu of eight to ten items is printed out, papered around the neighborhood, on the entrance to the cantina, and available at your table. These are Mexican tapas(small plates). The menus can be regional, typical Mexican fare, play on a theme like seafood for instance,international, or just about anything from the vast repertories of the cantina cooks. The majority of the cooks tend to be from Hidalgo, then Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Estado de Mexico(state of Mexico, including DF). The competition among the other cantinas is fierce, and the customers are demanding. They will tell you their cantina has the best cooks.

I start with a beer, perhaps an Indio, Victoria, or Leon. Many of the best beers in Mexico aren't available in the states, so pass on the usual suspects and try one of these.

A Mexican rum Potosi with coke is a favorite, and you even get to keep the bottle.

On my first visit to Dos Naciones, I had ordered the Spanish anis liqueur,Chinchon, with Garci Crespo mineral water for my third drink. I was with a friend who asked me about the anis drink, which is a Spanish version of anisette, so I pointed to the bottle on the shelf, when a sloppy, cross-eyed drunk started pointing his finger at me and asked me,"tienes pedo?" Literally, do I have a fart, which means, "you got a problem, man?"

I told him I was just pointing at the bottles above, but he insisted on demanding some respect from me, kind of like that cantina scene in Star Wars, where the thug tells Luke Skywalker,"My friend doesn't like you!" "I don't like you either. You just watch yourself. We're wanted men. I have the death sentence on twelve systems."

I then started to fire back, that I didn't have to give him shit. I then'm actually going have to get into a real cantina fight! I don't get into troubles at bars, but, there is something romantic about a real cantina fight, in the Hemingway sense of adventure.I'm not talking about your Roadhouse, nor the 70's era Burt Reynolds flick kind of free for all, but a piece of good old-fashioned drinking establishment code of justice.

I thought to just run up and drag him off the barstool, as he would likely go down pretty easily in his drunken state. I then told my friend that I needed a prop, like grabbing the mineral water bottle and drilling him right in the case he went for his pockets. I was alert and ready. More insults exchanged, eyes locked... the barstool drag?Hit 'em with my chair?A preemptive bottle to the chest? An empty 8 ounce bottle is a first strike weapon folks, and can be reused off the bounce.

I had earlier noticed this older man chatting up a friend at the bar, and he had been observing the escalating war of words when he approached the other guy to turn him around and get him back to drinking.

He then came over to me, put his arm on my shoulders, and looked me straight in the eye and sputtered, "Mexicanos son gachos."(Mexicans are fucked up) "Soy espanola."(I'm spanish). "Los espanoles.....somos gachos!"(Spaniards...we are fucked up) Jajajaja(hahahaha). "Don't worry, I used to own this place, no problems....hahaha....son gachos."

He had been chewing on these chicharrones, and as he spoke intently at a distance of only six inches from my face. I was showered with tiny moist crumbs of chicharrones, eyes twitching to protect myself from the offending projectiles.

With the beligerent drunk, back to swaying in his seat, desperately trying to steer the trembling beer glass to his mouth, I wiped the chicharrones from my face and shirt, and went back to my bar bites.It would have been classy of me to have sent a drink over to the testy, drunk.Oh, well, next time.Crisis averted. Just another day in a cantina.

Dos Naciones always has a great menu of the day, I always stop by to see what they're serving. I would be a regular here if I lived in the city. I love cantinas,and the best cantinas are places that live off the reputation of the food and their staff, not any superficiality.

A potato salad is a popular tapa at the cantinas. Nothing wrong with a nice potato salad made by a Mexican mother, it tastes like the kind my grandmother used to make for family gatherings.

The escabeche, or pickled vegetables of any establishment are a good indicator of the commitment of the eatery. This is prepared by the Dos Naciones cooks daily. Real pickled vegetables are such a treat.

The manitas de puerco(pickled pig's feet)were tender,with the right amount of chew and sweet from the tomato, cilantro, vinegar, and herbs.

Sopa zapoteca, Zapotec soup, is a menu item you'll in many cantinas, some times as a regular menu item. It's a hearty soup with tortilla strips, cheese,chili strips, and fresh avocado.

The pancita(tripe soup), a spicy stomach stew had my name written all over it. It is amazing the cooking that goes on in these kitchens. The bar makes its money on consumption, so the cooks have to be creative, economical, but mostly they have to deliver the goods. A good cook for a cantina has countless recipes, and has to prepare a daily tasting menu, many times they do this for decades.

Made from a quality paste, the pollo con mole poblano(chicken in Pueblan mole)is solid. Like many cantina items,it's a protein paired with a powerful sauce.

Even the pollo caserola(caserole chicken) packed a punch. The flavors are full bodied, meant to turn patrons into lifelong clients.

But, the cerdo en chile morita(pork in morita chile sauce) was outstanding, a memorable bite from my stop by Dos Naciones last month. The chile morita is almost as spicy as the chipotle, but has a more refined flavor.

I had noticed some girls in thick nylons and short dresses the first time I was here, but on my most recent visit, I saw they were taking drink orders upstairs. My drunk waiter, teased one of the girls as she walked by, and she punched him in the balls. Hmmm....going to have to check this out.

Upstairs was another tradition of the cantinas. Bar girls who will sit and talk with you, and dance the merengue, salsa, or cumbia for 15 pesos a song, about $1.20USD. If you want to talk to them, the cost is only about $4USD for a ladies drink.

I decided that I would buy a girl a drink.The woman who waved me over was nice, not a looker at all, but neither were any of the other women.This part of the cantina is for the viejitos(little old men). An older gentleman grabbed one of the girls for a turn to the rythyms of salsa, while my hostess told me her story.

This is where the men used to come, and still do, to get a little attention. Drink and shed some tears down below over your lost love, and head upstairs to lift your spirits. That's if you don't get into a pedo beforehand. Putazos are tantamount to opening up a can of whoop ass. They are the wild flailing of fists and furied kicks often associated with drunken brawls.

Dos Naciones is a landmark. An institution to borrachos(drunks),best friends, passion, great food, and an occasional misunderstanding. This is one of the cantinas in the city's historic center you simply must experience. If we sit here together, it's because you are dear to me, that's why you meet up and buy your friend a drink here. I might even casually spit some chicharrones in your face as a sign of affection, consider it an initiation of sorts. Salud!

Cantina Dos Naciones
Bolivar#58-A,Centro Historico
Mexico City,Mexico


Lesley said...

It's funny how different the cantina experience is in Mexico City for men versus women. I've been to plenty of cantinas, but always accompanied -- I've never had the fun and crazy experience you mentioned above, unless you count the time that one guy offered to pay for my and a girlfriend's drinks. Oh well.

The sopa Zapoteca looks amazing. I have to go and try it!

streetgourmetla said...

I had a very routine visit at La Mascota last month during happy hour, but when I wen there at an off hour, I had another adventure.

Hopefully, you'll soon have your own cantina tale. Love it!