Monday, March 1, 2010
A Visit to Cantina La Estrella de Oro
Personal Mission One on a recent trip to Mexico was to visit as many true cantinas as possible. I knew I'd find plenty of the old bars in Mexico City. I did not expect to encounter a peerless example of the breed in Coatapec, a small city of 50,000 in the heart of coffee-growing county in the Vera Cruz province.
I was in Mexico to tour the coffee fields and plant of Kahlua, and it was our guide Pablo Zacarias that led us to the cantina. If I hadn't been in Pablo's company, I probably would have been too intimidated to enter La Estrella de Oro, which is obviously the province of the locals, and, more specifically, old male locals. The broad front room seems to be put to little purpose other than silent domino games. The bar proper is in back and all of its 100 years tell on it. The plaster walls are faded and peeling, the wooden bar battered, the mirror behind it dirty and scratched, the various bottles of booze layered with dust. A half dozen Mexican men in jeans and cowboy hats sat hunched at the torquoise-and-cream-tiles bar, their routine disturbed by the intrusion of a dozen Americans.
But we stood our ground and quietly asserted our right to enter. (Or, rather, Pablo secured approval for our presence.) We took up residence in old white plastic chairs around a couple round tables and ordered a round of beers. I took an Indio, a local dark beer I was not familiar with; nothing special, just OK. I would have gone for a tequila or mezcal, but the dust on the bottles didn't flood me with confidence in their contents. Nonetheless, a bottle of mezcal, decent but not great, made its way to us, the label suspiciously modern. (Some more adventurous members of our party swigged from a local liquor infused with "donkey herb.")
Old pictures and newspaper clippings paper the walls. Pablo, translating for another guide who spoke only Spanish, gave me the joint's history. La Estrella de Oro dates back a century and was once a celebrated cantina. The train tracks used to run on the street right outside, and the bar was a regular stop for politicians and the stars of Mexican cinema who were en route to Mexico City from the coast. Old pictures show it to have been much more spruce back then. It was founded by a Spaniard, who, having no children, left it to an employee. That employee's son now runs it. It is a treasured local landmark. You'd never know it to look at the place. But it does reek or authenticity and true Mexican culture.
Few wanted to leave the cantina, but we had dinner reservations. The dinner that followed was fine, but we probably should have stayed put and bought some freshly made tamales offered by the old woman who made the round of the cantina tables.
I walked by the place the following morning around 8:30 AM. There were just opening for business.
(Thanks to Lew Bryson for the middle photo.)