We went to three kinds of neighborhood. Should you go to Mexico your host might not think of it, so ask him to take you through a rich neighborhood, a middle class one, and a poorer one. All of them will be clogged with cars. The rich and the middle will have more plants about. You will see more of the houses of the middle and of the poor, and more of the walls and gates of the rich. You will not see many of the wealthy walking unless you go to a parking lot. You will see the middle and the poor walking, waiting for the bus or a taxi. Above all you will notice the kind of houses and the neighborhoods each lives in and see the difference very clearly. I am all for classes; you may think of me as an elitist if you like for I am no egalitarian. It is interesting to observe and to note the differences, but perhaps what makes it more interesting to me is that I am closer to having access to all three, being from Minnesota and all.
One is closer because the dollar will buy you more there and because you can, as an outsider, move among them, in some ways, more easily. Besides, our middle classes have a higher standard of living than theirs do: we can get into their higher classes. A lot of this is carried out in the mind, the division of classes is as much a spiritual thing, as much a matter of conventions as it is a matter of money.
We penetrated into each of these classes by going to eat where they do.
We went to Saltillo (an older city, founded c 1580) and ate at a respectable establishment where the wealthy are fond of eating. The service was good, as everywhere, but a bit more solicitous. As in every other place, everything came served with refried beans and tortillas on the side. Nobody is so enthusiastic about Mexican food as the Mexicans, for they are incorrigible. At a restaurant such as this, however, you have no reason to wonder about the food; it is all of the best quality, which is what sets it apart. And the appointments are of the best: the table cloths are not only present, as opposed to mere place mats, they are usually interesting and of pretty heavy material, the silverware is of a heavier and less perishable variety, the crockery is more pleasing, and so on in every respect. It is the sort of place where one is not loath to discover what the bathrooms are like. In this one they had a glass jug full of mouthwash and disposable little plastic cups stacked beside it, besides ample space and marble, etc. So much, then, for the upper classes.
Of the middle class we had our greatest taste. The most characteristically Mexican place was a buffet which was across from the Sheraton. Some convention or something was streaming people across the street to Los Generales. It was interesting for having the sort of food about which the locals were enthusiastic. Not that the rich are so enthusiastic, or that the poor can afford it, but those there were lined up. One had to wait in line every time one wanted to get some food. The waiters got drinks and brought salsa and tortillas; they also removed used plates and bowls. This place had table cloths and it was in an old building, but it was more crowded and less fine. Besides, the idea of serving oneself is not very aristocratic. The appointments were not so good; the prices were more reasonable.
We also went to a more modest buffet, a cafeteria to be exact. There I had the best deep fried chicken cordon bleu I have ever had. It was here I ordered the corn which was excellent if oily. One cannot avoid oil there, if one is so unnatural as to want to. Have you ever tried deep fried chicken cordon bleu?
Three other places I will mention in connection with the middle class. They have large restaurant chains of course. Of these, Sanborns is the greatest and in my opinion the very best in all the world. Sanborns has the restaurant behind a shop full of gifts, books, and magazines. In the shop they usually have a counter, like a diner or a soda fountain (which it was originally, the first in Mexico), although I do not remember that this is the case in the newer places. Sanborns has the virtue of picking old buildings and restoring them, giving to the restaurant the atmosphere of the place, and so there are many different Sanborns. If you go to the flagship Sanborns in downtown Mexico City you will find yourself in the house of tiles, eating in a covered courtyard of a mansion built in the 16th century. The restaurant is almost 100 years old. I would consider a trip to Mexico City just to visit a bunch of Sanborns worthwhile. What I like more than anything is how they seem to preserve an old urban culture; they suggest to me the times in which they began during the early decades of the twentieth century. Perhaps it is the old booths, perhaps the chairs, perhaps it is the cloth napkin flat for a placemat and the second one folded up between the silverware, perhaps it is the outlandishly dowdy uniforms they make the waitresses wear (designed in the 19th century, no doubt), perhaps it is the feeble attempt at a buffet nobody ever seems to make use of, perhaps it is the coffee. Somebody hit pause, and the places I have been to are far older seeming than one would think marketable; and they are usually crowded although I can not remember ever having to wait for a table. (I am not making it up. I do not understand how it works.) Sanborns is owned by the very richest man in all the world, Carlos Slim. I reckon his smartest move was made on the day he decided to buy Sanborns.
(One of the great things about Mexico is that they have not joined the modern, paternalistic, puritan and reprehensible practice of banning smoking in restaurants. To me a restaurant does not smell right if there is none of the cigarette lingering about it. The restaurants on the chain are the ones most glorious for this.)
Of the other restaurants on the chain, Vips has good locations, but they are modernizing their great, round, orange booths for stuff more cramped and beggarly. This is the place with paper mats and napkins, unfortunately, but the coffee is stronger. Still, they make the waitresses were pretty formal uniforms. They try to ape Sanborns by having the gift shop in some of them, but it is not de rigor. We went to another such place on the chain but it is not worth mentioning. What is great about them is that they still preserve a distance between the waiters and the clients which is better than the informality the casual uniforms correspond to, something Mexican that makes me want to write about it with a fountain pen, slick back my hair and grow a little mustache like Igor.
The trouble with the places where the poor eat is that you could die of eating there if you are not inured, if you do not build up an immunity. There is nothing in the flavor and nothing in the price to stop you, quite the contrary. You might, if you had an imagination, start to wonder about the provenance of this or that, but usually the flavors are strong enough to concentrate your attention and keep the imagination from wandering. It is the ambiance that leaves a lot to be desired in the eating of the poor. The owners of these minute establishments are resourceful and ingenious about arranging a counter and a kitchen on a cart with four wheels. I remember walking past a narrow hallway in Saltillo. I looked in and saw people sitting at narrow counters against both walls and in the dingy depths a window behind which was the kitchen from which the food was being sold. There are some foreigners who live in Mexico who become enthusiasts of the taco stands and the crowded counters. We were never very much so with one exception. Prudence and culinary temperance (a general gastronomic inadventurousness and a certain love of comfort, it may be more accurate to say) has generally kept my family from frequenting or much patronizing the lower end of Mexican cuisine.
However, the neighbors decided to block off the street and have a celebration of independence on our last night there. They called in the caterers; these turned out to be two round women who in a garage set up the equivalent of a roadside stand. We had fried everything with cheese and salsa. These neighbors of my parents are of a curious emerging lower upper class. In this neighborhood they were almost all young, one or both of them work and commonly in IT, have a few small children, and are aiming to move ahead, to move out of the neighborhood. But their tastes are not that different from the next Mexican when it comes to food. When the steamed corn vendor pedals his contraption through the neighborhood he gets business.
So we had deep fried potatoes, deep fried flautas, deep fried enchiladas, deep fried sopes. A great deal of oil, everything with cheese, some refried beans, lettuce, green sauce all provided, but no place to eat. They probably stood leaning against cars or with their plates on the hoods of trucks. We went back home and ate with the assistance of many napkins. Mexicans are wonderfully neat at eating.
As you may surmise, we did a lot of eating there, beginning gradually and culminating with the feast of independence.