Tuesday, January 24, 2006

La Cantina

Sunday night I finally went to the cantina with three of the guys from Su Casa. I had heard about the cantina a couple of times before from the workers at Su Casa, but I hadn't had the chance to join an outing.

La cantina is on 47th, east of Ashland. It's one of those joints you don't know it's a bar unless you know somebody. It has a plain brick exterior, no neon beer lights or signage, and a door you have to be buzzed through. Inside there's a pool table, a bar and a couple of TVs hanging in the corners of the ceiling, plus an amazingly loud jukebox. There are some fun Mexican movie stills tacked up behind the bar, plus the usual cheesecake blondes advertising beer. Unsurprisingly, there probably weren't a dozen people in the joint around 10 on a Sunday night.

It was the first time I had set foot in a bar in the neighborhood, except for El Tio, which is really a restaurant that serves drinks. I've never gone to El Tio on a weekend night, when they have music for dancing or show fights or other sporting events on TV. This is the kind of thing where the language and cultural barriers look pretty intimidating, especially when considering going alone.

I recently picked up The People's Guide to Mexico, which informs me that in Mexico, women don't ever set foot in cantinas. If they do, either they are prostitutes or don't mind being mistaken for prostitutes. However, it's OK to work behind the bar if you're a woman, especially if you're in the family that owns the place. But it's not cool just to go for a drink.

However, the great fun of being a gringa in a Mexican neighborhood in the U.S. is you can set foot in a cantina, as long as you have lots of company, preferably male. Three guys was probably the fewest escorts I'd go with, and usually Su Casa shows up in greater force than that. Which the owner, Cesario, appreciates. He bought us a round (our second, we got our own first round.)

One of the guys in our group was chatting in Spanish with the guy at the end of the bar, who invited us to a strip club. Steve bowed out for himself but checked in with us pro forma just to get some backup on the refusal. The guy at the end of the bar had assured him the women at the club "were really fine." I wondered if he'd even noticed me--I was a couple of yards away and probably hidden by two of the guys.

Our bartender was female and bilingual. She asked for all our IDs and I told her I was old enough to be flattered she asked. She laughed. Later she started telling me all about how she's been going to biker bars since she was young, since her friend's brother had a bike and would take her sister and friends along. She's friends with the owner and was just helping out by tending bar for the weekend. She tells me they do tai chi in the park at 30th and Halsted in the mornings. I'll have to go by there sometime.

We ordered Tecates and a Corona (me), and looked down the bar at some point and saw all the regulars drinking Bud and Miller Lite. Very funny. The bartender says Corona doesn't taste the same up here as it does in Mexico. "That's like Guinness," I said, at which she smiled. She grew up in Bridgeport.

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