Here's to Mexico's roots

I entered my first small-town pulqueria, 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. Pulquerias 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 pulquerias in the Mexico City area dwindled from hundreds to a few dozen.

But in the last 10 years, pulquerias 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. Pulquerias 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 pulquerias, 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 -- pulqueria 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 pulquerias 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 camaron 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.

Pulqueria 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 Escandon. 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. This is the real thing: aqui es Mexico.

food@latimes.com

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Frijoles Aztecas (black beans with nopalitos)

Total time: 3 hours, 40 minutes plus soaking time for the beans

Servings: 6 to 8

Note: Adapted from Pulqueria las Duelistas in Mexico City. In Mexico, nopalitos are always sold "de-spined." If you are unlucky enough to have to buy them with the spines, you will have to carefully cut them away with a paring knife (garden gloves can help protect your hands). Hard-to-get spines can be pulled out with pliers. Epazote is generally available at Latin markets.

Tomatillo sauce

1 pound tomatillos, husks removed and rinsed

1 or 2 jalapenos, roughly chopped (seeded if desired)

1 small onion, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons sunflower oil or other cooking oil

Salt

Sugar

1. In a large saucepan, place the tomatillos and jalapenos and add enough water to cover. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the tomatillos until they soften and turn a yellowish-green, about 10 to 15 minutes (timing will vary depending on the size). Drain the water and place the tomatillos and jalapenos in a blender with the onion. Blend to a rough puree (pulse the blender quickly, it should only take a few seconds).

2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until hot. Carefully add the tomatillo paste (it will splatter). Fry the paste over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the sauce thickens and darkens a little, about 5 minutes. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning and acidity with a little salt and sugar (to balance the acidity) as desired. Remove from heat and set aside. This makes about 2 cups sauce. Cool before serving.

Frijoles Aztecas assembly

1 pound (about 2 cups) black beans

2 quarts water, plus water for soaking the beans

2 onions, 1 quartered, the other finely chopped, divided

1 small bunch epazote or a pinch of dried oregano

2 tablespoons light olive or cooking oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound nopalitos, fresh nopal cactus, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces

1 tablespoon sea salt

1. In a large bowl, soak the beans in at least 6 cups of water for 8 hours, or preferably overnight

2. Drain the beans and place them in a ceramic Mexican bean pot or a heavy casserole with 2 quarts of water, the quartered onion and the epazote. Bring the liquid to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat and cook the beans, covered, at a gentle simmer until tender, about 2 hours (time will vary according to the age and size of the beans). The beans should be soft but retain their texture.

3. When the beans are done, strain them from the liquid (save the liquid) using a slotted spoon, picking out as much of the onion and epazote as you can find, and discarding it. Place 1 cup beans and 1 cup of their cooking liquid into a blender and puree until smooth.

4. In a large, heavy-bottom soup pot heated over medium-high heat until hot, add the oil. Stir in most of the chopped onion (reserve a little to use as a garnish) and garlic. Add the nopalitos, frying until they are heated through, a few minutes more. Stir in the drained beans and the puree from the blender, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes to marry the flavors. Measure the remaining cooking liquid from the beans, adding enough water to come to 6 cups; stir the liquid in with the beans and nopalitos.

5. Bring the liquid to a slow boil, stirring from time to time. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and cook for 20 minutes to thicken the soup; the nopalitos will cook through and lose their bright color. Taste and add salt as desired.

6. This makes almost 3 quarts soup. Serve the soup in bowls, garnished with the sauce and a little of the reserved chopped onion.

Each of 8 servings: 277 calories; 14 grams protein; 40 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 615 mg sodium.

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Pollo en pulque (Chicken in pulque sauce)

Total time: 11/2 hours, plus marinating time for the chicken

Servings: 6 to 8

Note: In this recipe, dry white wine can be substituted for pulque. Serve this with rice and tortillas.

Marinated chicken

1 cup pulque (or substitute a dry white wine)

1/4 cup orange juice

1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest

1 small onion, roughly chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled

1 clove

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 small chicken (2 1/2 to 3 pounds) cut into serving pieces (breast in quarters, thigh and leg separated; save the back for something else, such as soup or stock)

In the bowl of a blender, combine the pulque, orange juice, zest, onion, garlic, clove, salt and pepper. Place the chicken in a glass or ceramic bowl and rub the marinade all over the chicken. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the chicken for at least 2 hours to marinate.

Pollo en pulque assembly

Marinated chicken

1/4 cup olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

3/4 pound plum tomatoes, chopped

1 jalapeno chile, seeded and finely chopped (optional)

1 pinch dried oregano

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 cups pulque (or dry white wine)

1. Remove the chicken from the marinade (reserve the marinade) and pat the chicken dry using paper towels or a kitchen cloth.

2. In a heavy casserole, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Brown the chicken pieces on all sides, turning from time to time. Remove the browned chicken to a plate.

3. To the casserole, add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the tomatoes, chile (if using), oregano, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the spices are aromatic and the flavors are married, 3 to 5 minutes.

4. Stir in the pulque and bring the mixture to a simmer, scraping any flavoring from the bottom of the casserole. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, and add the chicken and the reserved marinade. Cook the chicken at a gentle simmer, partially covered, until the chicken is tender, 40 to 50 minutes (the white breast meat will cook a little faster than the dark thigh and leg meat; remove the white meat and hold in a warm place until the dark meat is completely cooked). Remove from heat and serve.

Each of 8 servings: 334 calories; 20 grams protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 18 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 61 mg cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 347 mg sodium.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 13, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction 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.
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