The Cuisine of Guadalajara: La Cocina Mariachi

Guy Kloppenburg

The moonlit skies over Tlaquepaque are so transparent tonight that the Milky Way is clearly visible to the naked eye. Around a table at an open-air restaurant, a dozen mariachis belt out a song begging forgiveness for a wayward lover—no doubt the middle-aged man who has hired them to serenade his sullen wife. ''After all your caresses, after all your kisses, does it matter if I die?'' croons the lead mariachi, a broad sombrero held contritely over his heart.

What looks like a hint of a smile crosses the woman's face. She stuffs a tortilla with barbecued goat meat and dips it into a spicy sauce as crimson as blood. There's no mistaking the signs of reconciliation—indeed of contentment. Soon, husband and wife are ravenously devouring food together, to a crescendo of trumpets and guitars. Whether it was the stars or the songs that reignited affection, probably not even the couple could say for certain. But surely the birria—the goat meat and its savory sauce—played a part.

The communities around the great Mexican city of Guadalajara, and especially Tlaquepaque (pronounced ''tlah-keh-PAH-keh''), a town of 27,000 situated to its southeast, are the cradle of the cultural elements most associated with Mexican machismo— hard-riding charros (Mexican cowboys), romantic mariachi music, chest-thumping tequila drinking, and an uncomplicated, delectable cuisine that accompanies both intimate and boisterous social occasions. This cooking isn't as complex as some in Mexico, but with its pure, concentrated flavors, it is soulful food—vivid enough to be pecked at, scooped up, or slurped while listening to mariachis (and even while singing along with them or carrying on a conversation over them across a crowded table). Call it cocina mariachi.

Growing up in Mexico City, I visited the Guadalajara area with my father, an expatriate American businessman who had clients there—and I remember him sometimes joining them for a couple of before-meal tequilas, expertly licking grains of salt off his fist, sucking on a lemon, tossing back a shot, and then finishing the ritual with a gulp of the revved-up tomato juice called sangrita. Tears welling, he'd gasp for air as his would-be charro friends whooped and slapped the back of the intrepid gringo. On more recent visits to the region, I've noticed that the overbearingly macho ambience I recall from my childhood seems to have softened somewhat—or at least learned to coexist with a gentler sensibility. When I spent a few days in Tlaquepaque recently to reacquaint myself with cocina mariachi, my guide was an old friend who typifies this coexistence: Ricardo Santana is the son of a former mayor of the town, but he outraged his father by becoming a fashion designer. After working for years in Italy and France, he returned to Tlaquepaque and is now one of Mexico's foremost couturiers. At heart, though, he remains a local boy—with a heartfelt appreciation for mariachi music and cocina mariachi alike.

On a Sunday afternoon, Santana and I walk down Independencia, Tlaquepaque's main street. We pass a huge, decaying 18th-century mansion with a lushly overgrown courtyard—the house where the Plan de Iguala was signed in 1821, leading to the end of Mexico's bloody war of independence from Spain. Across the street is a house formerly occupied by the Santana family. Further along the street, cafes and food stands proliferate. We stop for a refreshing glass of tejuino, made from slightly fermented corn laced with lemon juice, and offer a few coins to a blind grandmother with a hauntingly melodic voice and her blind grandson, who strums a guitar.

The faithful stream out from afternoon Mass at the Church of St. Peter and crowd around the gardens, fountains, and benches of the adjoining plaza. Diagonally across from the church, we enter El Parian—a circular building full of bars and restaurants, with an open-air courtyard dominated by a gazebo at its center. Mariachis gather here like gladiators for hire, and since night hasn't yet fallen, there are plenty of them still waiting for the tables to fill up with potential customers.

Mariachi music was born in the 19th century, based on the instrumentation used by touring Spanish theatre orchestras—violins, guitars (including the cello-size guitarron, standing in for the Spanish harp), trumpets, and voice. Mariachi groups dress in elegantly ornamented charro outfits and perform their stridently emotional music at all manner of celebratory occasions, religious and secular. (The word mariachi itself may derive from the French word mariage, or marriage.)

Santana introduces me to two of the younger musicians: Miguel Barron, who plays violin, and Moises Trujillo, whose instrument is the vihuela, reminiscent of a ukelele. Though both are only in their early twenties, they began their musical apprenticeships more than a decade ago under the auspices of older relatives. ''There have been mariachis in my family for generations,'' says Barron, dusting off his costume, which is maroon with silver rooster bangles sewn along the pant legs. ''As a kid, I would watch my uncles play and think, This is the only thing I ever want to do.'' The downside of being a mariachi, adds Trujillo, is that ''Charros and mariachis have a terrible image. We're supposed to be macho skirt chasers and violent drunks. And that hurts, because a lot of us are religious, family types.'' And mariachis work long hours: While their usual schedule is from dusk to midnight, they're often called out of bed on short notice to sing amends beneath the balconies of peeved wives and girlfriends at dawn.

Like most mariachis, Barron and Trujillo neither eat nor drink during work hours—but they agree that their favorite food is birria. No two versions of birria are alike—even the basic form may vary, from shredded meat to be eaten with a soupy sauce to a thick soupy stew with meat and sauce combined—and if a chef gains a reputation for his birria, his recipe will remain a closely guarded secret.

So that I can at least glimpse the widest possible assortment of birrias—and just about every other specialty of the region—Santana drives me to the mammoth, bustling Mercado Libertad in downtown Guadalajara. The fresh produce here is a visual feast: apples, pears, watermelons, cantaloupes, mangoes, cherimoyas, tomatoes, chayotes, carrots, onions, potatoes, avocados—every one of them in several varieties and assorted hues. Besides these raw materials, the market harbors scores of food stands. Cooks offer free spoonfuls of every kind of freshly made stew, daring passersby to resist buying more. Adorning the seafood stands are roasted fish stacked vertically, with rings of raw onions hanging from their fins. Barbecued goats' heads mark the birria stands—though birrias are also made of lamb and even suckling pig.

It's only midmorning, but there are already hundreds of customers—a melting pot of blue-collar types, salesgirls, executives, and tourists—seated on the stools around the cramped kitchens of the food stands. A trio of aging mariachis strum their guitars but soon give way in awe to the piercingly beautiful soprano of a pre-adolescent boy singing a ballad a cappella. ''We're here to have a pinch of everything,'' says Santana. I start with a fish soup and then a marinated pork stew, both very good—but my favorite dish of the morning is tacos de cabeza de res: the sweet, tender meat of calves' cheeks, boiled, shredded, placed on small corn tortillas fresh off the griddle, and sprinkled with chopped onion and cilantro, lemon juice, salt, and spicy salsa. One thing I don't sample at the market is birria—because Santana has promised to take me the next day to Chololo, which he considers the best birrieria in the area.

Chololo lies off a plaza in the humble Las Juntas neighborhood of Tlaquepaque. On the walls hang photos of the owner with the leading local politicians, entertainers, and clergymen. About a hundred customers take up virtually every seat at the 25 Formica-topped tables downstairs. A small band sings ''Las Mañanitas'', a mariachi standard, for a grandmother celebrating her birthday with a score of family members. A waitress offers us a choice of cuts—loin, rib, pelvis. But Santana orders machitos, or entrails, served like sliced sausages. The meat is steamed, then baked in sauce. A stew is served in a separate soup bowl. Also on the side is a plate of light brown refried beans with cheese melted on top. Following Santana's lead, I add chopped onion, cilantro, and lemon juice to the stew. Then I fill a hot tortilla with meat sprinkled with salsa and dip the taco into the birria stew. It's hard to believe there is a better birria on the planet.

The next day, Santana takes me to a place where, he promises, the birria is almost as good—the Birrieria El Tartamudo (meaning ''The Stammerer'') in the village of Jocotepec, about 40 miles from Guadalajara. When we arrive, we're told—by the two young sisters who run the place, Sobeida and Yadira Loza—that every Sunday at 2 a.m., their family butchers ten to fifteen goats of about a hundred pounds each; by 1 p.m., there will be no birria left. ''Sometimes, customers get here too late and just ask for the soup if there's no more meat,'' says Sobeida, whose grandparents started the restaurant. ''It's great for hangovers,'' she adds.

I spend the last day of my stay in mariachi country at Santana's home—a Tlaquepaque townhouse remodeled in minimalist style. The couturier has invited a friend, Ricardo Torres—a furniture designer and former restaurateur—to help him and the Santana family's longtime housekeeper, Lourdes Sanchez, whip up still more local dishes. Sanchez prepares tortas de camaron, dried shrimp cakes slathered with a creamy red chile sauce full of diced nopalitos (cactus paddles). Torres concocts a dish in a more contemporary style—chayotes con camarones y salsa mexicana, lightly fried shrimp with slices of boiled chayote and a tomato, onion, and chile salad. Santana himself cooks a caldo michi, a soup of fish (heads and tails included) and vegetables. Needless to say, we finish the meal to the strains of mariachi music—on a record this time. The song, sung in a macho baritone by the late, great Jorge Negrete, is ''Tequila y Limon''.