Food is more than just basic sustenance; in many countries it is the cornerstones of culture — the occasion to eat is a celebration in itself. This can be seen around the world where pubs, restaurants, Kneipen, and other food establishments can flourish not only based on their cook’s ability, but also on the atmosphere they can foster among their patrons.
Mexican cantinas are a prime example of food serving both as sustenance and social glue. Originating over 100 years ago, cantinas started as a response to legislation barring any establishment from serving alcohol without providing food to accompany it. To get around this, cantinas started offering customers free entrées if they kept ordering drinks. Soon enough, cantinas became a favorite meeting spot for middle- and upper-class men during lunch hours. During these breaks, they would catch up with friends, play dominoes, or throw liar’s dice, all while enjoying good food and drink.
The menu of a typical cantina consists of dishes created from a mix of traditional Mexican food with Spanish and other European cuisine. As more cantinas appeared, competition became fierce and cantinas transformed from being bars with kitchens as an afterthought into bars with chefs fully dedicated to providing great food that would make customers choose their cantina over the competition.
In order to appeal to more customers, cantinas also started hiring musicians like trios and mariachi bands to entertain guests, finally gathering the perfect trifecta of food, friends, and music under a single roof. As great as cantinas are, they were until recently not considered hip enough and in truth they are not hip places. They certainly don’t have trendy mixology or molecular gastronomy, but their old-timey appeal, coupled with their solid food offerings and ambience, has ensured their survival and the opening of newer and more modern cantinas.
El Bosque is hailed as one of the best original cantinas. The cantina received its name from its proximity to El Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Forest, which receives its name from the term for cricket in Nahuatl). It was founded by a former head waiter from a nearby cantina and has been a staple of my father’s since before I was born. Although this was the first cantina I visited, I remember it vividly.
I was 11 years old and was coming back from a quick trip to the city’s center to help my dad with the family’s shoe stores when he told me we were going to eat somewhere special. The outside and inside of the place was nothing special, just a plain yellow building with a Corona marquee above the entrance. The inside featured white walls, bowtie-wearing staff, a small upright piano tucked away in a corner, and a dark wooden bar at one end. I had no idea of what to expect when the food arrived. I had never seen any of the dishes that were brought to our table.
That day we stuck to the classics. First I had what was called milanesa invierno (winter cutlet), a breaded pork cutlet covered in molten manchego cheese and blanketed in a semisweet chipotle sauce. The second round consisted of pescado a la sal (salted fish), a whole red snapper covered in rock salt and slow-cooked in an oven so that the salt melts and crystallizes into a fish-shaped casing that preserves all the flavors of the snapper without salting the fish. This is served with baked potatoes and homemade mayonnaise. While we ate, people from nearby offices and businesses slowly trickled in and the place slowly filled with the sounds of conversations and laughter. I’ve been back there several times since, at one point even bringing one of my roommates from Princeton so they too could experience a real cantina.
El Bosque is considered one of the old-style cantinas, but the new ones also have much to offer. One of them, called La No. 20 (The Number 20), has slowly grown to open a second location in Mexico City. The 20 is a much more striking place, adorned in a black and gold art-deco style that provides a fresh and elegant atmosphere. While offering a wide variety of food served in other cantinas, The 20 stands out for its atmosphere.
Any patrons can ask the waiter for games and he will bring dominoes, cards and a set of liar’s dice to the table so they can play while they catch up with friends and wait on their food and drinks. Every night at least one trio — a Mexican group consisting of three string players, usually a guitar, a guitarron, and a vihuela (slightly larger than a ukulele) — is in the cantina and walks around taking song requests, performing mariachi, jarocho, banda, and even modern music.
If you are there with a special someone, you can also request songs to serenade that someone and make a nice evening even better. At the end of the evening it is customary to order coffee and a digestive or, in recent times, a carajillo (orange liquor topped off with ice and a shot of espresso) in order to settle the stomach and have a nice trip home. Cantinas are one of the best places to eat and are an ideal way to experience Mexico.