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Mexico drinks to its roots

Mexico drinks to its roots
The legendary Aztec pulque was long considered the drink of the common man. It's served here at Pulquería la Pirata in Mexico City, poured by bartender Don Santiago. (Nicholas Gilman)

I entered my first small-town

pulquería

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, a place called Sal Si Puedes, with trepidation. The name itself was a warning: "Escape if You Can." Two toothless patrons teetering on bar stools gazed as I ordered a

pulque

. The bartender handed me a chipped mug brimming with a viscous, milky liquid. Its warm, slimy, acrid taste made me want to spit it out. But all eyes were upon me. I managed to quaff enough to impart a pleasant buzz — hmm, this is starting to taste better, I thought to myself. I paid my 3 pesos and made my escape.

Pulque

, popular as a workingman's drink since the time of the Aztecs, slowly lost its appeal as beer, tequila and mezcal took over.

Pulquerías

became dives, the lowest places to drink into oblivion. Women rarely entered but could buy the drink discreetly from small side windows. Gradually, the number of

pulquerías

in the

Mexico City

area dwindled from hundreds to a few dozen.

FOR THE RECORD:

Pulquerias: In the Nov. 10 Food section, an article and two photographs about the growing popularity of Mexico City's pulquerias should have been credited to Nicholas Gilman, not Nicholas Gill. —

But in the last 10 years,

pulquerías

have been making a comeback.

Mexico's
Facebook

generation is embracing and celebrating its culture in ways unknown to its parents, for whom

European

or American tastes set the standards of chic.

Older, distinctly Mexican traditions are now seen as cool.

Pulquerías

such as La Risa, the city's oldest, in business since 1905, and Las Duelistas, with its Aztec-inspired murals, have become fashionable places for young people to meet. One of Mexico's newest

pulquerías

, Expendio de Pulques Finos Insurgentes, was opened last year by a group of college-educated idealists whose agenda is to preserve and promote this age-old elixir. Of course, all three places have Facebook pages.

Pulque

is fermented

agua miel

, the fresh sap of the maguey cactus (the same one used to make tequila and mezcal). The result is translucent milky-white, viscous, vaguely effervescent. It has a piquant, yeasty taste with just a hint of sweetness. Though the alcoholic content is low, from 2% to 8%, it can catch up with you —

pulquería

patrons drink liters of the stuff.

Pulque

comes two ways: plain or flavored. Known as

curados

, flavored

pulques

may use strawberry, mango, guava, celery, beet or even oatmeal. Though many aficionados imbibe only the pure stuff, beginners may find

curados

more palatable.

Yeasty, constantly fermenting

pulque

is made fresh daily because it has a shelf life of less than 24 hours. Attempts to bottle it for export have met with limited success, although some pasteurized versions are available in the U.S., usually flavored and sweetened. So to sample true, fresh

pulque

, a trip to central Mexico is essential.

Most

pulquerías

offer

botanas

(snacks). For the price of a glass (less than $1), a satisfying meal can also be had. At Las Duelistas, which opened in 1930, a different

botana

, prepared by the bartenders, is served each day. Arturo Garrido Aldana, the third-generation owner, says that years ago, unusual "pre-Hispanic" dishes such as

chapulines en salsa roja

(grasshoppers in red sauce) were prepared.

Today's crowd is happy with less challenging fare. Most

botanas

are simple, light, inexpensive and easy to make at home. A taste of Don Arturo's black beans with nopalitos reveals a deceptively simple and extraordinarily earthy dish. Equally compelling is his essence-of-the-seashore

caldo de camarón

offered every Saturday.

Naturally, chefs going back to colonial times have included

pulque

in their preparations. The most common are chicken and pork in

pulque

as well as a few salsas. The lighter chicken dish is a variation of a standard European recipe calling for white wine, which wasn't widely available in Mexico before the 20th century. Cooks learned to adapt, substituting

pulque

for the wine. The pork stew, a festive dish, is dark, rich and chile-laden, like a mole without the seeds. Both are essentially and soulfully Mexican — like

pulque

itself. Cooks without access to fresh

pulque

can adapt backward: substituting beer or wine will produce results close to the original.

Pulquería La Pirata retains an authentic folksy atmosphere. For more than 60 years it has attracted old-timers and hipsters alike in the solidly middle-class neighborhood of Escandón. You enter through swinging saloon doors to a sun-dappled, tiled room painted in mismatched shades of blue and green. The floors are strewn with sawdust, an old wooden bar runs the length of one wall. The portly bartender, Don Santiago, has a look of languid boredom.

You order — "

un vaso de apio, por favor

" ("a glass of celery-flavored pulque, please"). You're served a celadon green drink, the glass rim crowned with salt. The first sip goes down smoothly. It's sweet but not cloying, a little yeasty, tangy and fragrant of celery. The salt gives it a kick. It's easy to love — a milkshake for grown-ups, an Aztec aperitif.

Finish the glass and order another; help yourself to a free taco from the bar. This is the real thing:

aquí es México

.

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