MEXICO CITY – It’s 10 p.m. on the dot when I meet the woman they call La Chaparrita (“Shorty”) and some friends at a hole-in-the-wall Oaxacan joint on a quiet corner in Mexico City’s Colonia Juarez. The place is a ghost town at this hour, the only sound coming from a refrigerator full of beer humming dully in the corner. Suddenly, the fridge door opens, as if by itself, and out tumbles a stylish if startled-looking woman, who pauses to blink away the bright lights before shouldering past our group out into the night.
Clearly, this is no ordinary taco joint. Is the beer fridge a portal to another dimension, Mexico’s answer to the Bill and Ted phone booth? If we pass through it, will we wind up trapped inside John Malkovich?
“That’s the exit. The entrance is over here,” La Chaparrita says, leading us to the back of the restaurant and through a set of narrow doors that empties into an almost-pitch-black anteroom. I hear some beeping as she punches a code into a keypad mounted on the wall, then a click, and suddenly the black wall opens.
“Welcome to Hanky Panky!” she exclaims, floating a manicured hand around the room. All dim lighting, gilded mirrors and red tufted vinyl booths and bar stools, Hanky Panky is a full-blown 1920s-style speakeasy with a menu of dusted-off classic recipes and an oh-so-exclusive door policy. (La Chaparrita is an investor in the bar, and only by her invitation were we able to get in.) This hyped-up new nightspot is just one example of how things are changing for the boozier in this once-quiet pocket of Mexico City – if you know where to look.
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Named for Mexico’s first indigenous president, Colonia Juarez is a middle-class neighborhood wedged between glitzy, fancy-hotel-lined Reforma Avenue to the north and artsy, bohemian La Roma to the south. Avenida de los Insurgentes, the city’s longest avenue, cuts through the middle, giving rise to La Juarez’s two distinct personalities. On the west side of Insurgentes is La Zona Rosa, which has been an important center for art and gay nightlife but now feels like a faded tourist-party zone washed in neon and thumping bass. The east side, by contrast, is quieter and more residential. Late 19th-century aristocrats once inhabited its ornate mansions and strolled its tranquil, tree-lined streets, named after fashionable European cities: Versailles, Londres, Viena, Milan. Recently, however, this part of La Juarez has seen an influx of small, craft-focused, design-minded businesses spilling over from the creative areas surrounding it. A hip new restaurant, cafe, gallery or boutique seems to open weekly.
“When we moved here 20 years ago, there was nothing to do, nowhere to get a decent drink, nothing!” says Guillermina, a family friend who lets me stay in her guest room whenever I’m in town. Even when I visited a year ago, I was hard-pressed to find a well-mixed quaff in her neighborhood. But this trip is different: Though my hostess is in bed by 8 o’clock, the streets outside no longer fall asleep with her. There are finally good cocktails to be had here, and I’m on a mission to slake my thirst.
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“Google says it’s right here,” I insist to Kyle and Andrea, some friends I’ve coaxed into exploring the neighborhood with me tonight. But despite what my phone says, there’s no sign of a jazz club on this corner.
“Maybe the people in this diner know something,” Andrea suggests, peering through the window of what looks to be a high-design homage to an American soda fountain, where couples are eating sliders and meatloaf.
I poke my head in and ask the cook: “Parker & Lenox?” He motions for us to come in, escorts us to a door in the back and points into the darkness. After fumbling to the end of a long hallway, we find ourselves inside a cavernous, dimly lit space where concrete columns and red velvet furniture surround a small stage. We’re much too early for the show, which starts close to midnight, so we pass the time by drinking our way through the cocktail menu.
“Surprise me!” I tell the bow-tied bartender, who nods and gets right to swizzling and shaking, his brows knit tight in concentration. Kyle rolls his eyes at the barkeep’s studied performance, but I’m sold on the bittersweet Campari concoction he sets in front of me.
A few nights later, I venture out on my own. It’s Mexico City cocktail week, and according to my little map, more than 100 bars citywide are participating, including a couple that are just up the street from Guillermina’s place. My first stop is Taberna Luciferina, housed in one of the neighborhood’s many casonas porfirianas, or large aristocratic homes built during the reign of Mexico’s late 19th-century president Porfirio Díaz, who had a thing for French architecture. I pass through an imposing iron gate and am greeted by a pair of hostesses seated behind a vintage TV set that’s been turned into a check-in desk. Inside, an open-air courtyard leads to a dramaticallylit oval-shaped bar.
I pull up a stool and ask for a menu, but the woman behind the bar just hands me an old book and walks away. I flip through its pages and finally find the multi-page cocktail menu bound inside, printed in a mock-medieval font. I order a Basilisco, made with mezcal, ancho chile liqueur, lime juice and fresh celery macerated with clove. The drink is bright, refreshing and not too sweet – just how I like it. But soon someone turns up the volume on an Adele dance remix, and I decide to seek out a mellower spot for Round 2.
I wander a few streets over to Havre Cancino, a low-key pizza place tucked into what was once the basement of a turn-of-the-century mansion. I grab a table on the intimate garden patio, surrounded by lush ferns, and eye the cocktail menu, which is brief but intriguing. My drink – a mix of mezcal, ginger and a local craft beer – arrives at the table in a Mason jar. A perfect balance of tart and fizz, it makes me slow down and savor the moment, like a good nightcap should. A spring-evening breeze brushes my cheek, and I forget for a second about the blanket of smog perpetually draped over this city; tonight it feels like just me and the stars.
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Back behind the beer-fridge door at Hanky Panky, Berit Jane Soli-Holt is mixing drinks in a vintage black-lace dress and delicate pearl necklace. In the three years she’s lived in Mexico City, the philosophy-PhD-turned-bartender from Denver says she’s seen the city enter a golden age of cocktails.
“There’s a special quality in the air,” she says. “Customers are becoming more interested.”
She insists Hanky Panky isn’t after exclusivity so much as being able to control the quality of the experience. They never let in more customers than there are seats, for example, and the music – right now “Rockin’ Robin” is playing – is kept to conversation-friendly levels.
I start off with a creamy, smoky-sweet Morning Glory Fizz, made from hibiscus-infused Glenmorangie shaken with absinthe, grapefruit and egg white, and follow it up with the signature Hanky Panky cocktail, a mix of Martin Miller’s gin, Cinzano red vermouth and a few drops of Fernet-Branca. Our host, La Chaparrita, explains that the drink was invented by early-20th-century bartender Ada “Coley” Coleman, whose black-and-white portrait looms large over our booth in the bar’s sunken “library” lounge. Legend has it that Ada wanted to surprise her largely male clientele with an aromatic drink that smelled girly but delivered a real kick.
It doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it packs such a punch that I decide to cut myself off for the night. I make the rounds with cheek-kiss goodbyes and saunter toward the exit. I stumble out to the other side, satisfied in knowing that what lies behind the beer fridge is not a portal to another dimension, but just – finally – a good, honest drink.
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Kroth is a travel writer based in Mexico City and California.
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If you go
Where to stay
Calle Hamburgo 32, Cuauhtemoc, Juarez
A historic Porfiriato building turned adults-only boutique hotel complete with balcony suites, a fitness center and a rooftop bar. Doubles from $238 a night.
Where to eat
Calle Lucerna 51, Cuauhtemoc, Juarez
Dine on burgers, tacos, hot dogs and more under twinkly lights in this new open-air food court, which also has craft beer and cocktails. Food and cocktails start at $4.
La Panaderia Havre
Calle Havre 73, Cuauhtemoc, Juarez
If the wait for brunch is too long at celebrated chef Elena Reygadas’s ultra-popular bakery-cafe, grab a fig-studded mini-baguette or caramel-filled brioche para llevar to go. Brunch entrees are around $4.
Gral. Prim 95
A just-opened spot from Chef Jair Téllez (of Merotoro and “Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants” fame) features eclectic dishes and natural wines from Tecate.
Where to drink
It’s not easy to get into this invitation-only, members-only speakeasy, but out-of-town visitors can send a message to the bar’s Facebook page to request a reservation and location information. Drinks range from $6.50-$11.50.
Calle Lucerna 34, Cuauhtemoc, Juarez
Elegant turn-of-the-century mansion converted into a nightspot serving creative cocktails and more. Cocktails are around $6.50.
Havre 64, Juarez
Wood-fired pizza, mezcal-beer cocktails and addictive truffle fries stand out in this designer basement spot.Cocktails are around $5.
Parker & Lenox
Calle Milan 14, Cuauhtemoc, Juarez
In a city starved for live jazz, Parker & Lenox is a welcome addition. Snack on classic American dishes in the diner up front, then move to the club for drinks and a show. Show cover starts at $5.50.