The air outside is thick, but the smoke in Santana’s bar is thicker. Even if I were a non-smoker it would be worth it just to sit in the bar’s tiny, air-conditioned seating area and watch the old men slowly drink themselves into an affectionate stupor at three in the afternoon.
This is the first stop on my locals-only, rambling tour of Veracruz, Mexico, and we’re starting with beer. This crescent-shaped state straddles the eastern portion of Mexico along the Gulf of Mexico and is famous for its history of pirates, Carnaval and the uniquely Son Jarocho style of music with its indigenous, Spanish and African musical influences — all indicative of its unique location.
Santana’s has an upside down emergency exit route sign placed gingerly between cracks in the wall. I imagine if there were a real emergency that no one would hurry to the door — no one here seems to be in a hurry to do anything. An old jukebox in the corner sits silent and a list on the wall advertises a bottle of tequila for 500 pesos (about $40). Thank God the beers are only 16 pesos.
My photographer friend, Joyce García, is a Santana’s regular. She was born in the port and when she returns to visit family she makes the bar her own personal office because of its free internet and cheap beers. “This place gets crazy,” she says as an entire salsa band walks through the door and starts to play. “Just wait a few hours.”
After a couple of songs and a couple more beers we leave Santana’s aquamarine walls and head down Zaragoza street to Bar Titos. Posters of half-naked women on the walls give the bar its racy element but the atmosphere is otherwise tame, with a few couples swinging to norteña music and kids wandering in and out, looking to sell candy or watch the soccer game for a few minutes. No air-conditioning here, just slow, lazy fans pushing around the salty Veracruz air.
When we get to Noche Buena bar on Arista street, I immediately fall in love with its swinging wooden doors. Every old cantina should have a wild west feel to it. Tonight, a Wednesday without a live band, the mood is relaxed and customers sit in clusters, sipping tequilas and sucking on limes sprinkled with salt. On the T.V. behind the bar, 1950’s Mexican movies play and a cat named Alfonsa rubs up against me begging for attention.
We take a break from drinking to sample the fare at Joyce’s favorite tacos de guisado stand, Los Gueros, in front of Sanborns restaurant off the main plaza. She orders a sweet tamale de elote and I eat a pork taco in spicy green tomatillo sauce and one of egg mixed with mild chile pasilla. We share an horchata — the classic rice milk drink with hints of cinnamon.
We set out from the stand on a night ramble through the historic center’s plazas. I am remembering one that I stumbled upon on my last visit here when I was a mere tourist without my local tour guide. There was a Cuban son band playing that night, and old and young couples were swaying to the music on the street. Men double my age and half my height even asked me to dance.
I find out it’s called la Plaza de la Campana for the large bell that looms over the plaza’s cement stage. You can find music there regularly. This night a band plays boleros — Mexican love songs — to a crowd seated around tables. The plaza is ringed by seafood restaurants and tiny torta shops and spectators appear to be settling in to watch until dawn.
La plaza de la Lagunilla is also lovely, with a square of park benches filled with kissing, whispering lovers and a statue of Benny Moré, the famous Cuban composer who was adopted by the Veracruz people as a native son.
La Pachanga is the last stop on the night’s pub crawl. It sits across from Veracruz’s famous portales and is the city’s late-night locals hangout. On the weekend, cumbia and salsa bands entertain the slightly lit crowds of dancers, revelers, lovers and those looking for love. After a few tequilas everyone is up and dancing, even though tonight it’s only music over the speakers and the morning is slowly washing in like the Veracruz tide.
Breakfast for Veracruzanos means picadas (flat thick tortillas with a smear of beans, salsa and cheese), gordas (puffed dough that resembles tiny elephant ears made either savory or sweet) and tacos de cochinita pibil from David’s taco stand on Gómez Farías street. David’s cochinita is not like cochinita in Mexico City, where the pork is swimming in a spicy garlic and achiote sauce. This version is a mild and fragrant cochinita broth ladled on top of tightly rolled pulled-pork tacos. The stand is only open from 10 to 4 everyday. Thank God or I would probably have eaten every meal there during my visit.
Seafood is ubiquitous in Veracruz. The city’s coastal location has not only made it an important shipping port, but also a vital source of the mariscos that jarochos — Veracruz locals — are crazy about. We’re too late for the fish market that is 10 minutes outside of town. Its stalls start to shutter their doors by 3 p.m. most days and the real action there is in the morning. But we do find El Torbellino, a local seafood restaurant without all the cheesy nautical decorations and annoying waiters hassling you at the door.
We eat a plate of snail ceviche — thick, tender snail meat “cooked” by lime juice and mixed with a sprinkling of fresh tomatoes and cilantro — and sample a shrimp cocktail that is less sweet than most I have had in Mexico. Both taste amazing, especially with a cold beer, although we agree that the texture of the snail takes some getting used to.
The following day we wander away from the city’s heat and take the bus to Coatepec for a final culinary escapade. Joyce assures me that this mountain town has the best coffee in Mexico and after visiting I tend to agree. Avelino’s cafe, downtown Coatepec in front of the San Jerónimo church, is a shrine to the roasted bean, and owner Avelino Hernández sits with us for over an hour talking about his upcoming book, Las Frutas Encendidas, and coffee’s spiritual qualities.
We also visit the Resobado bakery, which looks like an old woodworking shop and smells like heaven. Along its spartan walls are wood-fired pastries and breads, and the place permeates with the smell of yeast and campfire. We buy cookies with piñocillo (a type of Mexican brown sugar), wheat yeast rolls and conchas (sweet bread).
I want to be able to say that Coatepec is truly the best place for visiting coffee-lovers and so as a security measure we stop at Cafetal Apan for a final cup of coffee. I’m not let down. In fact more than down, the caffeine gives me a buzz I won’t lose for a couple of hours until we’re finally sitting in Las Tradiciones restaurant in the Costa Verde neighborhood downtown Veracruz chowing down on steaming hot ground beef and potato empanadas and drinking cold beers in the pouring rain.
I’m in a bit of a panic at this point that I haven’t yet tried the Naval hotdogs or been to Emily’s Antojitos on Zapata street that I heard is incredible. I also want to make my own seafood feast in Joyce’s kitchen from what I can find at the fish market. But time is running out. I decide incredible empanadas are not a bad final feast.