They do things differently

…out of [Mexico] City’s 85,000 streets, there are about 850 called Juárez, 750 named Hidalgo, and 700 known as Morelos. Two hundred are called 16 de Septiembre, while a hundred more are called 16 de Septiembre Avenue, Alley, Mews, or Extension…

David Lida

mexico city roualt035For someone who is not religious, I spend a lot of time thinking about religion. And for someone who is not Roman Catholic, who has deep concerns about the role of the church throughout history by supporting less-than-desirable rulers (read despots and thugs) and by … well, we all know it’s social problems whether it is the Magdalene Laundry or the sexual abuse of young boys or … choose your topic. I am, however, amazed by those who practice their faith, by those of piety. It started when I was a teen with the art of Georges Rouault whose work has always held me spellbound.

At first it was the stained glass that captured my attention. Then it was Miserere et Guerre, which a reviewer for the U.K. Catholic Herald described as

leav[ing] one not with a sense of exhilaration, but of despair.

The reviewer said that Rouault “peddled” in anguish, and – paraphrasing the reviewer – that Rouault’s Christ was not a Christ who could cheerfully lead the faithful through the pearly gates, but one who, like the rest of humanity in Rouault’s view, suffered. To me Rouault’s subjects, whether clowns or jurists, prostitutes or saints, Christ or kings, carry the weight of the world with them. Miserere made a huge impact on me and it was with ironic great joy that I found a used copy of the prints in book form a few years ago.

My friend M and I got off the tourbus in Mexico City at the Soumaya Museum, which is exhibiting 100 of its recent acquisitions, and almost each – one after the other – took my breath away, whether they were anonymous folk art sculptures or artifacts from Mexico’s deep past of ancient civilizations or European paintings or Mexican works. This is now my favorite museum in the world. It is not large, it is not a deep collection, but it was the most eclectic and interesting collection I’ve seen. One of the new acquisitions was the Rouault pictured above. It helps when you want to create an interesting collection to have the foundation of Carlos Slim working with you and to have the man’s private collection at your disposal. The museum is named for his late wife.

The Cafe at the Soumaya

Unbeknownst to M and I until we entered the cafe, it is one of the ubiqutous Sanborn’s eateries. We ate at two and she photographed the third, the house of blue tiles that serves as the chain’s flagship restaurant. Service at the two locations where we ate was horrifically slow:  the hot chocolate that M ordered arrived in a cool state and the fruit gazpacho I ordered was missing half its advertised ingredients. The Tres Leches cake was still frozen in the center after having been microwaved.

Guess and guess again

Hotel Catedral was pleasant, its location near the zocalo extremely handy, the beds comfortable, and the front desk, concierge, and other service staff extremely helpful. Each time one walked into the lobby one was greeted with the heady bouquet of guayabas (guavas) that were set out for guests’ consumption. The shower in the room was the absolutest best ever, anywhere.

Breakfast was included in our room rate and was better than just about any similar offering in the United States. There were plenty of Mexican offerings, ways to fix eggs, cold cuts and cheeses a la European guest houses, wonderful juices (including a tasty nopal-orange), the coffee was good, the hot chocolate hot and chocolaty.

There were a few minor drawbacks to our stay:  walls are not totally noise-absorbent, there was confusion whether we had been given our breakfast tickets (it isn’t sufficient to provide the room number or show the key), and the room key was not encoded for all three nights of our stay and had to be re-encoded each day after we discovered that it didn’t work on our return to the room in the afternoon.

Guests were left guessing as to what the hotel actually offered. Unlike hotels and motels in the United States, the contact list was nowhere to be found. Instructions for operating equipment (such as the telephone) were nowhere to be found. The hotel said it offered room service, yet no menu was found anywhere. M had to ask for an iron, ironing board and hair dryer which were provided, although the staff called within an appropriate amount of time to pick them up. The hotel was an example of a high-context business and low-context customers.

Fine Dining

A friend had suggested to M that we eat at Dulce Patria. We dutifully researched the restaurant as best we could (the restaurant’s “website” is a page on the Las Alcobas Hotel’s website, and most of the links to restaurant information were “in progress.”  The professional reviews we read were glowing, the tripadvisor type of reviews were spotty. I add my vote to the spotty.

The restaurant features uptakes on traditional Mexican dishes and it gets a star for that. I ordered a seafood and lobster pozole as my main dish and the seafood was plentiful, but tough. The pozole contained, in addition to the lobster, mussels, calamari, and shrimp. The shrimp was difficult to cut in the bowl because it was large and over-cooked. It should have been cut into bite-size pieces as most high-end restaurants would have done. Dessert for us was a flan that had the consistency of cheesecake. Service was somewhat strange with many servers and bussers hovering about, yet not quite sure of their tasks as they cleared M’s plates when she finished ahead of me, leaving me to feel guilty about taking so long to finish my course.

The wait staff seemed preoccupied with the geometric arrangement of our utensils both during and between courses, feeling a need to put them into their original positions if we had moved any item.

M thought her traditional Margarita delicious and I had the equivalent of a tamarind slush that also tasted terrific. Unlike many fine restaurants, the wine list was not brought to the table automatically with the menu and M had to ask to see it. There were no wines available by the glass.

If you enjoy cigarette and other smoke with your meal, then you’ll like that the restaurant offers a smoking area that is not separated from the rest of the dining area.

The restaurant is located at calle Anatole France, 100. I recently quoted Anatole France in the post Why is the American South so anti-knowledge?

Other Dining

Slipping into a niche somewhere between Sanborn’s and Dulce Patria were El Cafe de Tacuba and Girasoloes. Both are more traditional dining featuring Mexican cuisine and I’d go back to either. Of the two, Girasoles is the more refined, its cooking more elegant, and the room very pleasing with its sunflowers and fountain. Both are on calle Tacuba.

Tipping

Tipping for meals seemed to go against the method employed elsewhere in the world. At every restaurant I’ve ever eaten at – Canada, United States, Thailand, Europe, or Africa – one paid for the meal and from the change and with other money, perhaps, left a tip. If paying using a credit card, one received the bill, handed over the card, received the credit card receipt to sign and then added a tip or left cash.

For whatever reason, Mexico City waiters were reluctant to leave our table until we had set out the propina.

The Metro

It is fast, inexpensive, and the trains run with the frequency one finds in Paris. It is reliable, unlike San Francisco’s MUNI. It is hot, like New York’s in July or August. It is crowded – almost all the time. It carries about 1.6 billion riders a year (just behind New York and just ahead of Paris, but far behind Tokyo and Seoul and some Chinese systems).

The Tourbus

The open-top double-decker bus is handy, if not a little frustrating. One gets a good overview of certain neighborhoods from Polanco in the west to the Zocalo in the East and you get to see many of the main sights the city offers. It is a hop-on, hop-off arrangement (the handy part). We were given wristbands that identified us as paying passengers. We got off only once, at the Soumaya Museum (which was about one hour from the start of our tour at the zocalo). When we hopped back on, it took almost three hours before we returned to our starting point at the zocalo. Blame it on the traffic. That’s one reason 1.6 billion riders take the Metro.

Chapultepec Park

M and I were there on a Tuesday during the second week of the Semana Santa break and it seemed that approximately 22 of the 28 million people who live in the Valley of Mexico were there with us, either as a visitor or vendor. Each side of every roadway was lined with vendors of hot food, ices, ice cream, candy, popcorn, trinkets, balloons, toys, jewelry, clothing, and more.

Azulejos (Albéniz)

Azulejos are blue tiles, made famous in Portugal, but found in Spain, Mexico and other countries. The region around Puebla, Mexico became famous for their production and the extent of their use in the past was an indication of wealth.

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