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Cafe Mexicano

by Elaine Sosa

I lived in Mexico off and on for a year in 1988. Most surprisingly to my friends was that I chose to spend some of that time in Mexico City, a place long associated with overpopulation, horrific traffic and really bad air. Take away the overpopulation, I'd tell them, and it was just like being in LA. Which scared my friends even more. I decided to stop playing charter member of the Mexico City Chamber of Commerce and set about learning and exploring this vast city which has been home to Mayas and monarchs.

Luckily for me, whenever you get twenty million people cheek-to-cheek, you're going to get variety, in places to go, people to meet and things to do. I quickly discovered that Mexico City, much like my adopted home town of San Francisco, had a vibrant coffeehouse scene, and that people in this mega-capital were just as inclined to while away a few hours over coffee as the folks back home. No doubt it was also a Latin thing, the Latins being quick to put their lifestyle first and their worklife second.

Having returned to Mexico City this summer for an extended visit, I made it a point to check in on some of my favorite coffeehouses. They're still there, and charming as ever. My past and present impressions are noted below. Mexicans adore coffee, and it seems every meeting and greeting, whether business or personal, is quickly followed by "quieres un cafe?" Accepting every cup of coffee offered to you can become a challenge. But how do you say no to such hospitality? When in Rome...

Cafe Parnaso
Plaza Jardin Centenario
Plaza de Coyoacan 554-2225

This cafe is located right on the charming Plaza de Coyoacan, the neighborhood which used to be home to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Cafe Parnaso is a combination coffeehouse/bookstore which anchors one end of this colorful square. The city's bohemian set tends to frequent this part of town. Vendors and artisans fill the plaza on weekends, selling everything from leather goods to jewelry to new-age music. Oh, body piercing, too, with Coyoacan being about the only place in the city where you'd find this type of service.

On each side of the plaza are numerous bars and restaurants, most of which offer indoor and outdoor seating. Parnaso is strictly outdoor, and the place is hopping morning, noon and night. Small tables dusted with soft green tablecloths are a pleasing contrast to the black metal chairs. You can usually bask in the noonday sun, although a canopy is quickly unfurled in the case of an afternoon shower. There are lots of nibbles here, from tasty desserts (the chocolatines are warm pastry shells filled with chocolate cream and topped with fresh whipped cream) to savory combination plates. Even better news is that the coffees are excellent.

I returned to Parnaso recently with an old friend and her two small kids. She quickly brings out a slew of toys for the kids. Children under the age of five haven't yet mastered the art of hanging at coffeehouses, or anywhere, for that matter. The crowd at Parnaso on this particular afternoon is the usual mix of young bohemians engaged in serious conversation, mothers and daughters catching up, and families just keeping up. I've spent many an afternoon at Parnaso reading the paper or a good book, and remember it to be a particularly delightful sanctuary mid-week.

The Parnaso is surrounded by small trees which give the cafe an airy feeling. The plaza itself is filled with trees and graced by an elegant fountain at the center. Vendors' stalls are a riot of sounds, smells and colors, their bright yellow, orange and pink canopies warmed by the noonday sun and casting a soft glow over the merchandise and the passersby.

The scene at Parnaso is continually evolving. A young mother comes in with her two boys. One of the boys is carrying a small dog. They all proceed to discuss the movie listings in the day's paper. Even the dog seems happy to be here. Two guitarists breeze in and do a Gipsy Kings suite. The musicians ask for applause after each song, probably to get the attention of the many people engrossed in seemingly serious conversation. Large windows at the back of the outdoor terrace look into the crowded bookstore. It's certainly an eclectic bookstore, with more than its share of art and philosophy books, the kind of books that might well lead to serious conversation once you get into the cafe.

Busy, colorful, swirling, whirling. It's a magical scene at Cafe Parnaso.

Coffee arrived in Mexico at the start of the nineteenth century, although it wasn't exported in significant quantities until the 1870s. The Mexicans themselves consume over half the coffee produced in their country, with the US being the largest foreign customer, receiving over three-fourths of the exported coffee.

The coffee-producing regions of Veracruz and Chiapas account for 70% of the Mexican coffee crop, with another 10% coming from Puebla and the remainder from other states, among them fertile Oaxaca. Nearly all of the coffee growers in Mexico work on farms of 25 acres or less, a far cry from the real and imagined coffee plantations of yesteryear.

The finest grade of Mexican coffee is "altura," which means "high-grown." Where coffee is concerned, higher always means better, and the high-grown coffees of Mexico are considered very high-quality indeed and among the finest grown in the Americas.

Duca d'Este
corner of Florencia and Hamburgo
Zona Rosa 525-6374

The words "salon de the" are hand-lettered on the plate glass window at the front of Duca d'Este, and an apt description it is. This cafe feels very much like a tearoom in Paris, although I don't think the French ever spun themselves into the baking frenzy which is delightfully apparent at Duca d'Este. Located in the busy, chic Zona Rosa shopping district, the cafe is a haven (or is that heaven?) from the hustle and bustle right outside its doors. It's also the kind of place that makes you feel special in that grown-up, deserving sort of way.

I stop in one afternoon for a quick pick-me-up and to rest my weary feet. The sun is shining through the front window although it's raining outside. The room is painted a sunny yellow, and tables with yellow and white linens are scattered about the U-shaped room. Newspapers from around the world are on the front counter, while ornate gilt mirrors compete for wall space with vibrantly colored paintings. Windows all around afford an excellent view of the scene outside. Back inside, mandolin players stroll about the room, providing musical accompaniment for my late-afternoon break.

There is no shortage of sweet treats here -- cakes and pies and cookies and chocolate truffles are just the beginning. The cakes come in all colors, shapes and sizes, and trays of cookies and truffles line an entire wall. I remember that sweets in Mexico are sinfully sweet, so with that in mind I try to be sensible and order a vanilla pudding cake with a thick pastry crust and topped by shiny strawberries, the kind that are clearly sugar-coated. Along with it I order a cafe Americano, which is a shot of espresso followed by steamed milk. Rather than seeming American, my coffee drink is more reminiscent of the tasty cafe con leches I would drink on visits to Spain. The coffee at Duca d'Este is without question the best coffee in Mexico City. My pastry is sheer delight.

All around me, people are discreetly nibbling and chatting in low voices between bites. The crowd is a mix of businessmen, young mothers and tourists. A handsome young waiter waltzes by, his tray filled with beautiful coffee drinks. I'm content to spend the rest of my afternoon reading magazines and ordering refills on my coffee. Before I leave, I order a small assortment of cookies to go. As if it wasn't enough to just be here, you can take Duca d' Este with you.

When I lived in Mexico City, I often stayed at the home of a friend who lived in the Tlalpan neighborhood, an older neighborhood at the southern end of the city. Her apartment was located in the city's "hospital zone," and I'd often see white-frocked doctors scurrying to and fro, usually out on the street to grab a quick bite or a cup of coffee. Their favorite spot was near the corner of Lucy's street, a small restaurant which served breakfast and lunch only. I would invariably smell the aroma of coffee as I approached it. The coffee du jour was always cafe de olla, which translates to "coffee from the pot". This much-loved Mexican beverage really does simmer in the pot all day long, which enhances the flavors of this syrupy-sweet coffee drink prepared with cinnamon and cloves.

The recipe below comes from Carlos Basave, owner of Puras Habas, a trendy and oh-so-tasty restaurant in the old Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.

Cafe de Olla
serves four

6 T. ground coffee
6 to 8 small brown sugar cubes
3 cinnamon sticks
3 cloves
4 C. water

Heat all ingredients in a small pot to the boiling point. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the sugar cubes dissolve. Pour into coffee mugs (using a strainer is best).

Note: the longer the coffee simmers, the more the flavor will develop.

Another caffeinated beverage of choice for Mexicans contains no coffee -- it's chocolate in this case which does the trick. "Chocolate Mexicano" is a rich, sweet and very chocolatey beverage which can be substituted for a morning cup of coffee. It's often served with "churros," long, thick pieces of dough which are deep-fried and resemble chubby batons. The churros are dipped into the chocolate drink bite by bite.

This recipe comes from Oscar Rocha, owner of Cafe Fanari, a colorful cafe in San Francisco's Mission district.

Chocolate Mexicano
serves four

4 C. milk
4 oz. sweetened chocolate
4 cinnamon sticks

Heat the milk to the boiling point. Place the chocolate (break it into one-oz. pieces) in a wide-mouthed pitcher, then pour the hot milk over it. Stir the milk so that the chocolate will dissolve, then use an egg-beater to froth the milk. Serve in individual cups, and place a cinnamon stick in each cup.

A light dusting of cinnamon powder is optional.

Cafe Claustro at Museo Franz Mayer
Avenida Hidalgo 45
Centro Historico 518-2266

I finally made it to the Cafe Claustro on my recent visit to Mexico City. Over the years I had heard much about this place, mainly about the beauty of the setting. The museum itself is located in a convent which dates to 1583. Franz Mayer was a financier born in Mannheim, Germany who spent the better part of his life in Mexico City. During his lifetime he acquired a vast and highly-regarded art collection, much of which is on display at the museum which bears his name.

The cafe is situated in the old convent's interior courtyard. Small wrought-iron tables are set along two sides of this arboreal paradise. The center of the courtyard is adorned with pretty trees, wildly-flowering shrubs and a serene fountain. As you look up, you see the colorful dome of the church next door. Classical music is piped in, adding to the already delightful mood.

I quickly realize that Cafe Claustro is all about mood as opposed to food. The selections are limited to several desserts, sandwiches and pizzettas, but there is a large selection of coffees, teas and other drinks. My chocolate torte and cappuccino accompany me to an outdoor table (there are tables indoors, but you are wise to ignore them). The afternoon sun feels wonderful as I savor my coffee. My book remains unopened, because there is too much to look at, to think about and enjoy.

If my friends back home could see and experience Mexico City like this, surely they would change their minds about this enchanting city. As for me, I'm a fan for life.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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