Viva Cantina

Mexico City's traditional watering holes serve great, humble meals.

Penny de los Santos

"Be sure to go into every cantina you can," a wise local friend advised when I moved to Mexico City in 2007. There are bars and lounges, but a neighborhood cantina is another sort of watering hole: over lit, rarely crowded, never impeccable, but nonetheless endearing. Interiors range from scratched-up mahogany banquettes and crumbling Gilded Age filigree to blaring TVs and plastic furnishings—sometimes all of this at once. Though all are welcome (boys club holdouts barred women until 1982), a laconic, masculinity permeates, at least until patrons start braying off-key torch songs. Beyond these similarities, you could say there's a different joint for every taste.

Though cantinas are known best for drinking, one fantastic benefit is that, in the afternoon, every beer, soda, or shot you order gets you something from the kitchen—gratis. The best cantinas have a real cook who serves up three or four rotating dishes, typically stick-to-your-ribs, pyrotechnically seasoned "peasant" fare that can range from savory pork-and-hominy pozole to a chicken leg doused in tangy salsa verde, or fish served Veracruzan-style, in a tomato, pepper, and olive ragu. The idea is to ply customers with spicy, salty dishes that keep them drinking.

My corner cantina, La Dominica, in Mexico City's ancient downtown, does not attract a soigne crowd, but receives me like a VIP. I pop in for tequila and their excellent turkey torta, a generous sandwich complete with perfect avocado and three-alarm chiles. There's another place I like, Bar Sella, in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood, for their chamorro: pork shank on the bone in caveman portions, greasy and marvelous, served to a mixed clientele of working stiffs and neighborhood families. Then there's the dive out by the bus depot, Ardalio, whose Sunday specialty is barbecued goat; or the art deco relic, Salon Paris, that serves an enormous plate of carnitas—pan-fried pork chunks eaten with fresh tortillas and lots of guacamole; or the lodge for Spanish exiles, Covadonga, shared by domino-slamming regulars and, lately, hipsters, who tear into runny potato omelets known as a tortillas españolas.

For me, Mexico City's gritty cantinas are a sublime affair. With earthy grace, they weave themselves into the everyday life of this raffishly elegant, sometimes terrible metropolis, with food and drink at the ready.

CANTINAS IN MEXICO CITY:

_La Dominica
Belisario Dominguez 61
Distrito Federal
52/55/5512-7977

Bar Sella
____Dr. Balmis 210
Colonia Doctores
52/55/5578-2001

Ardalio
Jose Maria Vigil 57
Distrito Federal
52/55/5515-3624

Salon Paris
Jaime Torres Bodet 152
Colonia Santa Maria La Ribera
52/55/5547-3710

Covadonga
Puebla 121
Distrito Federal
52/55/5533-2701_