I like pulque and I'm glad it's back in fashion. New pulquerías are starting to spring up and anything new that isn't a 'Mc...' 'Wal...' or 'Star...' in this town is a good thing.
Pulque is fermented agua miel (fresh sap) of the maguey cactus, from which tequila and mezcal are also derived. It’s translucent, milky white, viscous and vaguely effervescent, with a piquant, yeasty taste, and just a hint of sweetness. The alcohol content is low, but it can catch up with you. It comes two ways, plain, i.e. white and unadulterated, and flavored with fruits, vegetables, or occasionally grain. Known as curados, these sweetened pulques may include strawberry, mango, guayaba, celery, beet, or even oatmeal. While true aficionados will only imbibe the pure stuff, beginners may find curados more palatable.
Once used only in Aztec rituals, pulque has long been considered the alcoholic drink of the common man. Fifty years ago there were hundreds of pulquerias in the capital, now only a few dozen survive. As beer and stronger distilled liquors became the preferred libations, the outmoded pulquería joined the endangered species list. Until recently they were the dominion of rough working class men and a few ‘ladies of ill repute’. Most establishments sold the drink to ‘decent’ women only through discreet side windows, reminiscent of prohibition era speakeasies.
Pulquería La Pirata is a typical, old-time neighborhood bar. It conserves an authentic folksy old-movie atmosphere. In the same spot for over 60 years in the solidly middle class neighborhood of Escandón, it attracts old-timers and hipsters alike.
I enter through swinging saloon doors to a sun dappled, tiled room painted in mis-matched shades of blue and green, the floors strewn with sawdust. I approach an old wooden bar that runs the length of one wall. The portly bartender, Don Santiago, has a look of languid resignation on his face. Behind him are metal canisters of curados - piña, melón, apio (celery), avena (oatmeal). No one greets me or even seems to notice that I’m here. I clear my throat and tentatively order – “un vaso de apio, por favor” (a glass of celery, please). I’m served, the milky, celadon green drink, the glass rimmed with salt. I taste. It goes down smoothly - sweet but not cloyingly so, a little yeasty, tangy and fragrant of celery. The salt gives it a kick. Easy to love - a milkshake for grown-ups. I finish my glass and order another. Most pulquerías offer botanas, light snacks to accompany your drink. For the price of a glass of pulque (less than $1 US) a satisfying meal can also be had. So I help myself to a free taco of chicharrón prensado from the bar. And then another. There are a few other time honored venues for this most Mexican of beverages, but La Pirata somehow evokes the past more than most. ¡Viva la vida!
Pulquería La Pirata
Calle 13 de Septiembre, corner of 12 de Diciembre,
right below the Viaducto,
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and I'm quoted in New York Magazine this week: http://nymag.com/travel/