Local Flavor: Pulquería La Pirata

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,
Colonia Escandon

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A note to my readers: See my recent article "A Weekend in Havana"
and I'm quoted in New York Magazine this week: http://nymag.com/travel/features/mexico-city-restaurants-2012-2/


Chinese New Year: Asian Bay

I recently came back from a month in India, with a 4-day stop in Shanghai at the end. It was my first visit to China, and the food lived up to my expectations. The endless variety of dumplings, the shop windows full of glistening roast ducks, the surprises like tofu skin salad—I was in heaven (click here to see photos). The only problem was returning to Mexico City. While I love my hometown—it has no shortage of culinary delights—the Asian food scene here is sparse.

So the best Christmas present this year was the discovery that a Chinese restaurant had opened while I was away. Last time I travelled, I was dismayed to find that a Starbucks had planted itself practically under my window during my absence; this Asian invasion is so much more to my liking. Asian Bay, located in the thick of Condesa’s restaurant melee, is no ordinary chop suey joint. It’s a high level ‘Chinese food-for-Chinese people’ restaurant.

The young chef, Luís Alfonso Chiu is the son of immigrants from Canton. He grew up in the deco/colonial house, now converted into the restaurant. But the family feeling continues. As chef Chiu presides over the kitchen or mingles with clients his proud parents, Alfonso and Patricia, quietly run the ship.

Chef Luís recounted how his grandparents, who arrived here during the Mexican revolution, had been ‘asked to leave’ during the growing anti-Chinese movement of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s (astute business people, the Chinese were resented by the Mexican upper classes). His parents were born in China but the lure of Mexico remained and they immigrated--lucky for us. The chef grew up here, is as Mexican as mole, but loved the food of his ancestors, so he went back to Canton and Shanghai to study cooking.

Meanwhile, the pretty house has been converted into a pleasant restaurant – the covered plant filled courtyard is bright, warmed by touches of wood and bamboo. And of course, there’s the requisite fish tank.

As for the food: I’ll let you in on a secret: two menus are available, one for ‘gringos’ whose perceived tastes are simpler, the other, similar but more ample, for Chinese patrons (don't worry, the Chinese version is translated into Spanish). The menu is divided into appetizers, soups, meats, poultry, fish, and dim sum (Chinese ‘tapas’). I’m a big fan of dim sum and there’s satisfying selection here, with a choice of steamed, baked and fried. No clichés are to be found.

The har gow, morsels of shrimp perfumed with ginger, wrapped in rice pasta and steamed, are fashioned with loving care. Xiaolongbao, those famous pork dumplings from Shanghai that squirt soup when you bite into them, are as good as those we lusted after there. Char shiu bao, poofy, steamed bread encasing a mouthful of sweet, fragrant pork – are the best I have tasted anywhere. The salt & pepper squid is crispy yet tender.

The menu is mainly Cantonese with nods to spicy Sichuan and mild, sweet Shanghai-style cooking. ‘Fish filets Sichuan style’ is a refined version of the Sichuan hot pot, a hell’s brew of fiery peppers in liters of bubbling oil. Here the boneless filets are served on a plate with a reassuringly conservative oil/Sichuan pepper sauce that doesn’t overwhelm.

A Five-spice duck is bathed in a finger-licking, slightly sweet brown sauce – this reminds me of typical Shanghainese dishes. Pato Pekin is roast duck served the traditional way, carved at your table and rolled into little burritos with a bit of hoisin sauce, scallion and cucumber. Vegetables, simply listed as verduras chinas de temporada turned out to be, recently, beautifully sautéed baby bok choys, dressed with a little stock and a hint of ginger. Perfection itself.

The only caveat I have is that the dim sum are priced disproportionally to the rest of the menu: $70-80 per plate of 4--high even by New York Chinatown standards--whereas main dishes hover around $130. Dinner, with a beer or tea will be $250-300 pesos--money well spent.

I wondered how you say ‘buen provecho’ in Chinese. “You don’t,” a Chinese-speaking friend explained, “You just eat.” Fine with me.

Asian Bay Restaurante

Av. Tamaulipas 95 (between Vicente Suarez & Campeche) Condesa

Open Monday - Thursday: 12:00 -10:30 pm

Friday, Saturday 12:00 -11:30 pm

Sun:12-9 pm

Tel. 5553-4582

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A note to my readers: The new, expanded edition of my book is out and available on Amazon; see side bar