Walt’s Fish Market—Sarasota, Florida

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Nearly a century of family history goes into this Sarasota classic, evocative of another era a rapidly changing state.

It’s a touchstone of the city, and a link to what this city, and what this state, used to look and feel like. In a town of transients, transplants and snowbirds, Walt’s Fish Market is that rarest of Florida institutions: An old school place that’s been in the same family for four generations.

The history of the family that runs it is a story it would be hard to imagine outside of Sarasota. The Ringling Brothers Circus casts a big shadow here, as the town served as their winter headquarters. When the circus hit town in 1918, they had a young Swede in their ranks who’d fled his home country to join them. Claus Wallin, the young Swede, settled in Sarasota and became a commercial fisherman.

Claus passed his fishing knowledge down to his son Walt, who sold fish on Whitaker Bayou, then opened his own market after returning from World War II. Eventually, it began serving food as a restaurant, and it’s remained a family establishment ever since. Walt passed the business to his sons Walt Jr. and Tom, who in turn passed it to Tom’s son Brett, who runs it today while continuing to fish and crab the waters around the city.

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Fresh catch.

While Sarasota today trades on that history of being “Circus City” (there’s a museum, and even a brewery that goes by that name now), the commercial fishing industry has grown harder to navigate. And yet, Walt’s Fish Market on South Tamiami Trail continues to stay deeply connected to the nearby waters. As you go along the counter, you’ll see a few items imported from elsewhere. But if they tell you the seafood came from Florida, you can be sure it was swimming that morning, and that the owner can tell you the name of the person who caught it.

Like the business he owns, Brett Wallin is something of an anomaly in a city defined by rapid development. He’s kept a family business alive by treating the people who work there like family. (Edible Sarasota ran an excellent piece on Brett and the way he runs the business, which you can read here.)

Throughout my life, Walt’s is one of the handful of places img_3974whose consistent presence has kept this strip of South Tamiami surprisingly familiar in the midst of the city’s population explosion. Along with other local institutions like Demetrios Restaurant and Pizza (with that same sign all these years later), Karl Ehmer’s Meats (Home of the Original Turducken!) and Fogt’s Gulf Coast Music Center (your place for rentals and repairs!), Walt’s is a reminder of a Florida that many people looking to make a buck off the landscape seem all too ready to forget.

In 2012, Brett Wallin oversaw a redesign of both the space and the menu, and the results were excellent. The place still has the feel of Old Florida. It’s kitschy without being ironic. Stuffed fish and wooden ship wheels adorn the walls. The tables are lacquered wood and the bar (Chickee Hut) has a tiki theme and classic cocktails suited to the climate. But this isn’t a design for the newcomers so much as it is a salute to what always made the area what it was. There are photographs of old fishermen who kept the market stocked, there as much in reverence as in remembrance. For anyone who grew up here, the place feels like home.

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Mussels in garlic butter and white wine. Classic.

The menu in the restaurant and the offerings in the market remain true to that old spirit. Appetizers like steamed mussels, conch fritters and hush puppies. Sandwiches of grouper and mangrove snapper. Unbelievably delicious stone crab claws, which were available in bulk when I was a kid and now sell for up to 35 dollars a pound. And most importantly, the famous smoked mullet spread, which my family demanded I bring home for a Thanksgiving appetizer.

I know this place. I’ve seen gilded stores up the street like Lechmere and Circuit City come and go. I saw the Sarasota Quay as it was built, and I saw it as it was demolished. I watched the Ringing Towers come down a Ritz Carlton fill its place. My elementary school, Phillippi Shores, now sits about 300 yards from where it was when I played touch football on the playground. My parents even had a restaurant over here, where my mother was the chef. The door was just under a mile from Walt’s.

Walt’s has been at its current location since 1977, one year before I was born. The restaurant my parents owned no longer exists. My old neighborhood is barely recognizable. But every year I drive down this road and see that Walt’s is still there, and I’m thankful for that.

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Walt’s Fish Market and Restaurant is located at 4144 South Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. They have different hours for different parts. The fish market is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, except Sunday when they open at 10. The restaurant opens at 11 a.m. every day, as does the bar. The restaurant closes at 10 p.m. and the bar closes at 11 p.m.

Walt’s has a website here.

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Eating Oaxaca

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The crowded food stalls in 20 de November Market in Oaxaca.

The steam coming from the grills is the first thing you notice, even before the smells reach you. In the front of Oaxaca’s 20 de Noviembre Market, right where it connects with the Benito Juarez Market, there are food stalls everywhere. For the shoppers. For the vendors. For the tourists, if they get the urge. Most of the stalls are sit down counter restaurants. But in a small section on the side are a row of grills and stands with beef and chorizo laid out on slanted tables, with thin loops of tripe hanging just above. You tell them what kind of meat you want, and the butcher/grillmaster cuts it, cooks it, and brings it to your table in a basket with tortillas. Meanwhile, other vendors make their way around with nopales (diced stewed cactus), green onion, red and green chiles and other condiments.

And this is just the market.

From around the world, people come to Oaxaca for the food. They come for the markets that draw from the incredibly rich countryside. Because of the shifts in altitude, Oaxaca has a huge number of climate regions, and a wide variety of the best of the best produce grows down here as a result. In a country renowned for its cuisine, Oaxaca stands tall. It’s the place that gave us the drink of the gods (mezcal), the food of the gods (chocolate), and the sauce of the gods (molé).

Even the pests become food here. A popular snack, sold everywhere from markets to football matches, is a bag of chapulines—grasshoppers, toasted and spiced.

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Chapulines. They taste better than they have any right to.

The cuisine is a rich mix of dishes that pull from the multiple indigenous groups that live in the area, including the Zapotec and Mixtec. The cuisine the region is most known for is molé, including the so-called “Seven molés of Oaxaca”: Verde, amarillo, colorado, coloradito, negro, chichilo, and manchamanteles (which literally means “tablecloth stainer”). Each of these sauces is served over some kind of meat, be it turkey, chicken, beef or pork (though each does have a meat it is most traditionally served with). They vary in complexity, from molés that can be prepared in a couple of hours to ones that might take a week or two to complete.

One of the best known, and best appreciated, is molé negro. Made from a variety of crushed and ground spices, seeds and nuts, multiple chiles, and Mexican chocolate (which helps give the sauce its unique color), molé negro is an exceedingly complex sauce and, as a result, often saved for special occasions. The best I had in Oaxaca City were at the well known staples Los Danzantes and La Biznaga, and a less well known breakfast spot El Escapulario.

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Molé negro.

The region’s drink of choice, mezcal, is widely available in a staggering number of varieties. Sit down at some restaurants, most bars, and virtually any residence in the city of Oaxaca and someone will pour you a shot as a welcome. At many of the bars—or mezcalerias that specialize in the eponymous drink—the menu can be overwhelming. Distilleries are listed, along with the type of agave they use, and whether it is joven (young—a couple months of aging), reposado (aged from 2-9 months), añejo (aged at least a year) or some other category.

In the United States, mezcal long suffered a reputation as an inferior drink. This was due to the poor quality of what was being imported, as well as the extreme popularity of its cousin, tequila (which is actually a type of mezcal). In the last couple decades, however, the drink has experienced a rebirth outside of Mexico (it never really went out of fashion in Oaxaca). Smoky and earthy, and containing a flavor profile that varies greatly with the type of agave and the type of preparation, good mezcal is probably best compared to good scotch. Delicious, distinct, strong, and highly complex. Tequila shots are ubiquitous in the countries where it is exported. Mezcal is never, ever, EVER meant to be shot. You sip it with all the care of a hummingbird.

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Sipping mescal with Roberto Bolano at Restaurante Tobizache.

But my personal favorite treat from Oaxaca is the chocolate.

This is not the type of chocolate normally associated with Switzerland or Belgium. The chocolate of Oaxaca is rarely used for pastries or confections, but more for baking, as an ingredient in sauces and, in particular, for hot chocolate.

Is there any drink more comforting than hot chocolate? In Oaxaca, it’s available in any coffee shop, and not merely as a dessert. It is perfectly acceptable to drink it for breakfast, proving that Oaxaca is a land of elevated culture and taste. On ordering you will be asked if you prefer it with milk or water. Milk is rarely drunk alone in Oaxaca, so the quality is not what you might be used to if you live in a dairy region. But it works just fine for hot chocolate. The drink will then be spiced with cinnamon and, occasionally, with chile. In the cool climate of the mountains, it’s unbelievably refreshing.

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This man spends all day dealing with chocolate, which makes him smarter than you.

I haven’t mentioned the service, which from restaurants to bars to mezcalerias to coffee shops is uniformly superb. Hospitality, as demonstrated by those welcoming shots of mezcal, is of high importance here. There seems to be little secrecy about what makes the food great, which makes sense. The cuisine here is defined by quality ingredients, but also by meticulous attention to detail that consumes a great deal of time. Whatever secrets are held by those who prepare it are deeply encoded in the method of preparation. You could probably get a full list of ingredients of a family secret molé sauce and still have no idea which step to open with. The secrets are safe, and the land is abundant. These are secrets that are safe to share.

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El Escapulario is located at Calle Manuel Garcia Vigil 617 . They have a Facebook page here.

La Biznaga is right down the street is Calle Manuel Garcia Vigil 512. They have a Facebook page here.

Los Danzantes is across from the Santo Domingo cathedral, at Macedonio Alcalá 403. Their website is here.

Restaurante Tobizache is located at Calle 5 de Mayo 311. They have a website here.

Café Arábico is located at Macedonio Alcalá 802.

Last Days of an Exile: Mexico City’s Leon Trotsky Museum

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Entrance to the Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Forget the politics. Look at the bullet holes.

Fist sized chunks of stone are ripped from the bedroom wall. The window facing it has shutters of reinforced steel, set in place after this assassination attempt on the life of Leon Trotsky failed. Look at the guard tower over the courtyard. Look around the windowless kitchen. Note the lack of light at the man’s writing desk. Everything about the house itself says keep out. Says, go away. Says, last stand.

It’s not a home. It’s a prison. And that’s what it was supposed to be.

Leon Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1937, a step ahead of Josef Stalin’s agents. He’d been sentenced to death in absentia by a kangaroo court assembled in Moscow a few months earlier. He’d lived much of his life in exile. Siberia following his first prison sentence. London and Vienna in the time of the Tsars. Switzerland at the outbreak of the Great War. And following his banishment by Stalin in 1929, a constant state of movement from Turkey to France to Norway. In 1936, around the time of his death sentence, Norway kicked him out, likely due to economic pressure from the Soviet Union.

After interceding on Trotsky’s behalf with the Mexican government, the painter Diego Rivera invited Trotsky to live with him in Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul. The home was fortified with bricked-in windows and guards, and Trotsky and his wife Natalia moved into the home for two years, before an affair with Kahlo and arguments with Rivera led to a permanent split. Trotsky moved a few blocks away to the home where he would spend his final months. In August, 1940, he was assassinated by an undercover Soviet agent who was serving as his butler.

The story is fairly familiar for anyone who has studied either the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the life of Trotsky, or the lives of Rivera and Kahlo. What is not familiar, and what needs to be seen, is the way they lived out those final months.

The home has become a museum of Trotsky’s life. Pictures adorn the walls of him in his youth, leading the army that would secure the new republic. A master of organization, Trotsky virtually formed the Red Army while serving as the right hand of Vladimir Lenin. After Lenin’s death, Trotsky lost a power struggle to Stalin, and was forced out. First from his position. Then out of the Communist Party. And finally, out of the country itself.

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Bullet holes in the bedroom wall.

By the time of his arrival at the home of Rivera and Kahlo, his situation had gone from untenable to tragic. Stalin’s forces murdered his sons. They murdered his ex-wife. They murdered nearly everyone who had stayed loyal to Trotsky over a decade earlier, all of whom had “apologized” for their loyalty in an effort to save themselves and their families from punishment.

Trotsky’s legacy, like the legacy of most revolutionaries, is a complicated one. There is something supremely human in his desire to see poverty eliminated, to see democracy as a sustaining force for social movements, and his fierce opposition to totalitarianism. And yet, there is his role in setting up a one-party system that did not tolerate dissent, that became increasingly repressive, and that would eventually hunt him down and murder him and nearly everyone close to him. He took the blame for some things that were not entirely his fault, such as the disastrous Soviet-Polish War, and he was written completely out of the history books by Stalin as the purges of the nation extended.

In a sense, Trotsky benefits in historical perspective from comparison to Stalin. Perhaps things would have gone more successfully in the Soviet Union under his leadership, and perhaps they would have fallen apart. Trotsky did participate in the suppression of uprisings during the early years after the October Revolution, including the Red Terror. Perhaps he would have become a repressive dictator. Or, perhaps he would have become a voice of moderation, figuring a way to make a smooth transition to some kind of democratic socialism. Every hypothetical seems possible.

But no matter your opinion of the Leon Trotsky who fought for that revolution in the early years, it’s impossible not to have empathy for the Leon Trotsky who ended his days here in Mexico City, plagued with high blood pressure, surrounded by guards, and under constant threat of assassination. It’s hard to imagine the terror of that first assassination attempt, with a machine gun firing the room he shared with his wife, an attack that would leave his grandson wounded and one of his guards dead.

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Trotsky’s study, where he continued working until his assassination. The dictaphone sits under the far corner of the table.

He lived a quiet life here, and would probably be a more obscure figure today if Stalin had simply left him alone. Then again, Stalin didn’t leave anyone alone. The Trotskyites who threw themselves on his mercy were eventually murdered anyway. In a sense, Trotsky must have known he was a dead man once he went into exile. And there is something admirable about his desire to refine his theories and continue to attack Stalin in spite of the danger, writing at his desk and reciting ideas in his Edison Dictating Machine, which would then be typed out by two secretaries working in the next room. Whatever else you can say about him, the man went down fighting.

The assassination of Leon Trotsky took place on August 20, 1940, when Soviet agent Ramon Mercader, who had been posing as Trotsky’s butler, struck him on the head with an ice axe. The blow was fatal, but Trotsky did not die immediately. One of his final acts was to order his guards not to kill Mercader where he stood, so that he could be made to stand trial. Trotsky died the next day in a hospital and is buried in the courtyard alongside Natalia.

Today, his grandson Esteban, who was wounded in the unsuccessful assassination attempt at the house, helps to run the museum dedicated to Leon Trotsky’s life and death. Starting in 1987, Trotsky’s books became available in Russia, and he was formally rehabilitated by the government in 2001. And his museum serves another function today for people like the man who occupied it: Providing assistance to political refugees. That last part would surely have made an old revolutionary proud.

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The Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky is located in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City at Rio Churubusco 410. It is open from 10:00 am to 5:00 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday. Entrance is 40 pesos. They have a website here.

Tacos and Churros in Mexico City

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A bubbling cauldron of everything good in life.

It’s the street food capital of the world, and it hangs out its shingles for everyone. For those on a budget, for those with millions. Walk Mexico City and you see the stalls everywhere. Food stands hawking tacos and tortas. Breakfast and lunch and dinner and dessert. Guys on tricycles with speakers on the front blaring advertisements for tamales. Vendors on corners selling cups of freshly cut mango and papaya, with a dash of chili salt on top if you’re feeling that. You can find something to eat everywhere. And if you can’t find it, give it a minute and it’ll find you.

There are few cities in the world where you will see more people eating on the street. As the writer David Lida explains in his marvelous panorama of the city First Stop in the New World, street stands in Mexico City share two distinct advantages. The first is the weather, which is consistently temperate, enough so that eating on the street is a good idea almost any time of year. The second, more important reason, is that the government hardly taxes food stands. Essentially, every vendor gives the city a small percentage of their profits. This allows for an interesting experiment in democracy, with people intermingling from street corner to street corner without sequestering themselves into corner booths or tables, isolated from one another.

The other thing that makes it work, of course, is the quality of the food.

For most Norte Americanos, the food most associated with Mexico is the taco. And while it would be a mistake to call the taco Mexico’s national dish, it is probably the go-to convenience food for every state in the nation. Mexico City, being the central switchboard for the country, holds countless restaurants and food stands that cater to all of the nation’s regional cuisines. This means that you can find every kind of taco under the sun, stuffed with every imaginable combination of stuff. Everyone contributes. And Mexico City, for its part, contributes perhaps the greatest version of them all: Tacos al Pastor.

In the 1920’s, Lebanese immigrants made their way to Mexico City, and brought with them the shawarma spit. Enterprising Mexican vendors took the basic design (meat on a vertical spit with a flame toasting the side) and replaced the lamb with pork. Cured, and marinated with chili, citrus and spices, the trompo, as it’s called, rotates on the spit, turning the meat a distinctive orange hue. When you walk up and order, an expert takes a knife to the meat with one hand and slices downward, shearing off strips of meat that fall into the tortilla waiting in their other hand. Cilantro and relish are added, and often a slice of pineapple, which is usually roasting on the spit just above the pork.

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Behold, El Huequito’s Taco al Pastor. Quite possibly the best taco in the world.

Like po boys in New Orleans, hot dogs in Chicago and pizza in New York, every neighborhood in the city claims they have the best of the best Tacos al Pastor in the city. Following the advice of David Lida, I went to El Huequito. This joint’s been serving the famous dish (and a variety of other things) since 1959, and their al Pastor is legendary. They have a sit down restaurant on the inside, but you can just as easily stand on the street and chow down right by the freshly cooked meat. You also get to witness the curious honor system of the taco stands. You walk inside to pay, tell them how many you had, and they charge you. Nobody questions it, and nobody seems to lie about it, either. The street food exchange is, it appears, sacred territory, free from con artists.

El Huequito brushes their Tacos al Pastor with an orange salsa. Perhaps it’s the salsa, perhaps it’s the way the meat is cured. But when you bite into one of these, everything bad in your life vanishes. I’ve eaten my share of tacos, both in Mexico and the States, and I have never tasted one so good. It is as perfect a bite of food as I’ve ever had.

To move onto another stand is not so much about improving upon El Huequito it is about variety. Quite simply, if you can go anywhere to eat, you should. Eventually, you’ll find a few stalls you return to repeatedly.

Fortunately, El Huequito sits right next to the model of taco variety: Los Cocuyos.

Extending out onto the sidewalk with a small metal bar and a few stools, Los Cocuyos, prides themselves on, and distinguishes themselves with, their varied menu, which includes earlobes, throat, head, tripe, tongue, and eyes.

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Eye meat for the taco. Don’t knock it til you tried it.

I tried everything. Even the eye, which it should be noted is NOT the eyeball, but rather the meat that surrounds the eyeball. It was pretty good. Everything was good. But the surprising winner was the tripe, which pops with a charred smoky flavor that you would never associate with stomach. The folks at Los Cocuyos will also toss in some nopales—stewed and diced cactus leaves—which make for a nice side.

These two stands, three doors apart, make up a microscopic section of the savory street options in town. Once, coming out of a bullfight, I ate tortas that I was assured were made from cabeza de lobo—wolf’s head. I had no way to confirm this. I simply took the man’s word for it.

But if you’re feeling like a sweet option, you can get everything from fresh cut fruit to ice cream. My personal favorite, however, is the churro.

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Churro stand. A beacon of hope.

I fell in love with these sugary torpedoes while visiting Spain, where people often have them with chocolate dipping sauce for breakfast, proving that Spain is one seriously civilized country. The churro is basically a tube of fried dough, smothered in sugar and cinnamon and often dipped in some kind of sauce. On the streets outside the main plaza of the Coyoacan neighborhood, La Estacion serves these things up with a couple dozen options of sweet sauces to cover them.

My friend Chris and I happened upon this place after we may or may not have been drinking rum in a nearby cantina. I can’t tell you the hour, but I can tell you that a churro sounded like the perfect cap to the evening. Chris ordered his with a sauce made from Bailey’s Irish Cream, and I ordered mine with Nutella.

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Churros.

We got them to go, took our first bites, then turned and walked back to the stand to get seconds.

Perhaps these were the best churros on the planet. They sure tasted that way to me, even the next day when I was far more sober. But whether they are, objectively, the greatest churros ever, isn’t the point. The point is that just by walking and sampling what’s available on the street, you can find some of the best food in Mexico City. In that kind of environment, it’s advisable to never be in a hurry. Wander, graze, try a bit of everything. In the city with the greatest street food on the planet, it’s easy to have a great meal. Even if all you’re doing is going for a walk.

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Los Cucuyos is located at Calle Bolivar 54 in the Centro.

El Huequito is a couple doors down at Calle Bolivar 58.

A Rumor of Conflict: Oaxaca in July

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Protesters march through Oaxaca in late July, 2016.

“It’s so quiet,” said Sofia. Not that I would have known the difference. Oaxaca, in my first experience, felt like a city that was usually quiet. The old aqueduct, the beautiful colonial church, the brightly painted buildings on cobbled streets. The town seems right out of a Yankee tourist brochure. In July, with the state’s biggest festival just starting to swing, it had everything except the Yankees.

But any thrill I might have felt about this beautiful place ran up against the crushing reality of its cost. Sofia, who is from the area and has lived there most of her life, reminded me that nobody was making any money. People in this city, in this state, depend on tourism. Especially in July, when tourists from Mexico and the U.S. come down in droves for the annual Guelaguetza Festival. But walking around town in July, it was clear that as far as Americans went, I was an exception.

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On June 19, Mexican Federal Police opened fire on a group of teachers in the town of Nochixtlan who were protesting sweeping education reforms, killing several people. Maybe eight. Maybe a dozen. Maybe more, depending on your sources. The stories in the American news talked about the violence, and quite simply scared the hell out of the gringos. Across the news networks, the story was about the violence in Oaxaca.

Nochixtlan, where the shootings took place, is in the northern part of the state of Oaxaca. In Oaxaca City (many state capitals in Mexico share their name with the state they are in), the explanation for the Yankees staying away was pretty simple: Americans heard the word “Oaxaca” and either assumed the violence was in the capital city itself, or simply assumed that the whole state was on fire.

I saw this firsthand when I told people where I was going. For some Americans, the mere mention of Mexico as my destination (outside of a saccharine, sterilized tourist resort) was tantamount to proclaiming a desire to scale Everest. The immediate response, often from people who had never set foot in the country, was something along the lines of “Be careful.” This statement often came from people who lived in cities with a much higher rate of violent crime than where I happened to be going.

And yet today, four months later, the story has virtually disappeared from the American news cycle.

*     *     *

For Oaxacans in the city, the conflict was, and remains, all too real and at right their doorstep. Most people I spoke to supported the teachers’ union (Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Education, or CNTE), which has been locked in a battle with President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government over the reforms that had been put in place in 2013 (and to a larger extent, since earlier reforms in 2006). Much of this is about power in the region. The union is seen as the major political force in a region that has been historically marginalized by the federal government. More than half of the country’s entire indigenous population lives in the state of Oaxaca, and many of them count Zapotec, Mixtec, or another indigenous dialect as their primary language, with Spanish as their second. Even those who supported some of the reforms put in place by the government were reluctant to support them after the violence erupted, particularly since the government’s original statements placed the blame with “guerrillas” who had mixed in with the protestors and fired on the police (video footage contradicted this story, and the government was forced to pull back the Federal Police).

But even those who supported the union were frightened for the local economy. Tourism is one of the area’s economic engines, particularly in July when the month-long Guelaguetza Festival goes into full swing. A celebration of the traditional dance, costumes, food and drink of the region, it’s the high season of the tourist trade, and everyone from trinket sellers to waiters to tour guides to language teachers depends upon the business. With the CNTE blocking the major highway between Oaxaca and Mexico City, the business was spare, and people were frustrated.

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Dancers in traditional dress during the Guelaguetza Festival.

Tourism work is feast or famine work. When the season is on, you make money. In the off-season, you spend the money you stored away when things were hopping. You do this on the assumption that there will be work again in the future. You don’t think about the bottom dropping out.

But the danger of that kind of economy is the same as the danger for an agricultural one. What do you do if the rains don’t come?

In July, the tourists weren’t coming, and the town felt thirsty.

*     *     *

In August, as the school year began, the teacher’s strike continued. Roughly half the schools in Oaxaca failed to open their doors, and nearly all of the schools in Chiapas remained shuttered. In Oaxaca, a tent city in the Zocolo continues to be a presence, as it has, more or less, since protests began rolling in the region in 2006.

And yet, outside of Mexico, stories about the protests and their effects are few and far between. Other than an excellent article in Al-Jazeera earlier this month, it is very hard to gauge the situation if you follow English language news.

But gauging the situation in the capital back in July wasn’t much easier. There wasn’t a great deal of press coverage in Mexico, and the city continued to function. There were rumors, there was a sense of something being wrong even as the town forged ahead with its festival. Not for the benefit of the tourists, but simply because that’s what has to be done to keep things going.

And the protest goes on. As it did in 2006. As it did in 2013. As it did this July. A study of the government’s education reforms by the Georgetown Public Policy Review found enormous faults with them, claiming that “the policy instrument presented by President Peña Nieto disregards completely the current teaching model.”

President Peña Nieto is extremely unpopular in the country (his popularity rating in August was a dismal 23 percent), and his tenure ends in 20 months. Perhaps that could crack open a dialogue between the union and the new government.

In the meantime, the roadblocks in Oaxaca come and go as the protests wax and wane. The government continues its track to implement its reforms, despite the historic unpopularity of their architect. And those of us far removed from the situation have the luxury of hearing nothing of the continuing conflict.

La Polar: Mariachis and Hangover Cures

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Every country has its suggestions for how to recuperate when the previous night was too much. From full English breakfasts to the heart-attack inducing Canadian specialty of poutine to—my personal cure-all—pickle juice right out of the jar, humanity worldwide looks to certain specialties to save them from crippling headaches and sideways glances after a night of poor decisions.

In the Mexican state of Jalisco, that specialty is Birria.

Birria is ideal hangover food. Like the hangover cure of choice in many places, it centers around a bowl of salty, spicy broth. The salt helps your dehydration. The spice makes you sweat out your sinful nature. Birria chefs then pile the bowl high with shredded lamb, and the waiter brings out sides of avocado, cheese, lime, and various peppers. Even if you stagger in like the village drunkard, by the end of the meal you’ll be right with the world again. Just wash the club stamp off the back of your hand and you’ll be ready for church.

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Goodbye hangover. Hello clean living.

Since 1934, Mexico City’s Cantina La Polar has specialized in this particular hangover cure. Sitting in the Colonia San Rafael, a frequently overlooked neighborhood studded with colonial mansions in various states of repair (or disrepair), La Polar is easy to spot with its distinctive yellow and blue paint job and their logo of a polar bear walking away from an igloo where he may or may not have been feasting on the inhabitants.

The neighborhood of Colonia San Rafael was once the major theater district in the city, but sustained heavy damage in the 1985 earthquake. The area has been undergoing something of a rebirth of late, but a slow one, as other areas of the city seem to be gaining a lot more attention. The one business in the area that seems to never have slowed down is La Polar, whose busy valet parking lot speaks to the restaurant’s continuous business. This is one of those neighborhood joints that it is fair to call an institution.

Birria is more or less the official dish of the state of Jalisco, which contains the nation’s second largest city, Guadalajara. This region is famous for another piece of Mexican culture quickly identifiable to foreigners: Mariachi bands.

And at La Polar, you can order your very own band to serenade you while you eat.

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You definitely need to hire these guys.

Listed on the walls in each of La Polar’s four large, spare rooms are prices for bands. 135 pesos for Mariachi tunes. One hundred for Norteños. Ninety pesos for photos of the band, or with the band. Often, the bands walk up to your table and offer their services, but if you don’t see them you simply tell the waiter what you want to hear, and he will retrieve the band. These guys are professionals, too. You will see them tuning up in the parking lot, checking the shine on their boots and the cut of their jackets. They make a joyful noise, which might be a bit much if you walked in with a hangover, but that’s what the birria is for anyway.

This is a classic cantina, about as old school as it gets. But its a proudly local spot, off the main tourist track, and still very much as it was a few decades ago, when the neighborhood had more movie theaters than any other in the city. Despite the changes in the neighborhood, from high to low to (hopefully) high again, La Polar remains there, a signpost of consistency in a rapidly growing, rapidly changing town. Still serving the old recipes. Still bringing in live music during the meals. Still there, whether you are arriving in the highest of spirits or trying to crawl back from the dead.

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Cantina La Polar is located in Mexico City’s Colonia San Rafael neighborhood at Guillermo Prieto #129. Their number is +52 55 5546 5066. They are open at 7 a.m. every day, and stay open till 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, midnight on Sunday, and 11 p.m. every other day. More information here.

Waxwing Music: Hurray for the Riff Raff

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Back on the scene.

Here’s my latest piece for the wonderful Waxwing Literary Journal. This is on the amazing Alynda Lee Segarra and her band Hurray for the Riff Raff, her new album The Navigator, and the question of identity in a world intent on grinding that down. I hope you enjoy.

You can read the story here: Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra Navigates Identity in Turbulent Times

More soon…