I like cantinas, as I do dive bars, especially when I’m traveling. I like being in them during the day, the feeling that I should be doing something productive wearing off after my first beer. I like that while we’re the ones inside, joyful and too honest and slipping off barstools while the sun is high, it’s the world outside that seems disorderly. Because here there will always be someone older than me and younger than me by a decade having a good time— and it’s pretty easy to make friends. That confusing concoction of a house drink that makes no sense when you arrive? It tastes good after a while. The light comes in through the swinging saloon doors and if you’re kind the stories come out from the dusty collectables behind the bar. The beer is constantly in front of you, it costs little, and the snacks, so low-key they’re genius, arrive in divine timing. There is an order at these types of bars you can usually depend on, no matter where you are.
Here are two cantinas I enjoyed in Oaxaca.
Salón de la Fama
Established in 1958, Salón de la Fama reels you in in true Oaxacan style: eye-catching color (a bright royal blue paint job outside) and casual charm (a tasty bottle of mezcal labeled with scribbles in sharpie). Above the bar you’ll find three photos of “El Chato” capturing the different eras of this legendary owner/cantinero’s life. He’s now in his 80s so while you might not catch him shaking cocktails, he’s certainly left a tradition of good hospitality among the young guys running the bar.
My favorite thing about eating at cantinas is that you never know what you’re going to get— maybe some black market caracol, maybe some refried beans and stale chips, or maybe some delicious oily yellow potatoes dipped in bottled green habanero salsa. The latter was the case at Salón, my toothpick repeatedly reaching for another bite of salt, warmth, spice and a brief crunch. Apart from botanas, they have a full bar, and two signature drinks: the pink panther (a frothy vodka and grapefruit cocktail) and a pineapple and rum drink. I mostly drank beer.
Salón de la Fama is not a well-kept secret from tourists, but locals come here too. It’s here where I met the people behind the La Salada pop-up, who bring their mezcal, Aguas del Corazon, and a small menu of ceviche, empanadas and tacos to various bars around the city. More on them will follow in another blog post.
Hours: 12 pm until the crowds mellow, but not any later than 2 am. Closed Sunday.
While at Salón de la Fama, Andrea, co-owner of La Salada, invited me to her dad’s bar. La Giralda is a good twenty minutes from the centro, a quiet oasis from the streets that narrow and the heat that thickens as you leave the city’s heart.
It’s been around for 70 years, Andrea’s father Carlos inheriting it from his father. There’s a four person bar, white plastic chairs and tables, and a TV and boombox playing music videos the mute colors of 1980s VHI.
I asked Carlos if it’s changed much. “A little to catch up with the times, but not really,” he said as he pulled out a giant garrafon of mezcal infused with a leafy, emerald-green plant. It’s lemon verbena, and it tinged the air with a medicinal, citrusy scent. That and whiskey were always popular back in the day. He pours it in a house-labeled bottle called “pinche mezcal,” which is refreshingly to the point.
At the start I was given a little plate of salted peanuts, dried chile, and lime. Then a small bowl of caldo de camaron (shrimp soup) with four tiny shrimps on the shell: it was brick red with a rich flavor, the color of the orange bubbles of oil leaping out of the spoon. Very quickly I grew a small collection of michelada, victoria, and mezcal to wash it down. They have regular lunch specials, and La Salada pops up here too (Carlos held their menu like a very proud Dad when I asked to take a picture).
Hours: M-S 12 pm to 10 pm, Sunday 12 pm to 7 pm
Thanks to Oaxacking and Andrea for introducing me to these places.