WHAT A PERSON SEARCHES FOR during a lifetime is as personal as a fingerprint: power; money; a sensitive lover; elixirs of youth; the ideal dance band; nirvanas of all shades and hues.
My search is for something simpler, as illusive as happiness, yet found in a thousand places. My search is for the noblest manifestation of Tex-Mex culture, the quintessential Mexican Regular Dinner Number One. The Perfect Taco. The supreme steak tampiqueña. The unsurpassed burrito. As far as I know I am the only member of my peer group to hallucinate after a flawless guacamole salad.
With resolve burning like a hard gemlike flame, I set out to find my grail. My search took me from Juarez to Matamoros, following the Rio Grande, the famous Route of the Hungry. I engorged, ingested, consumed, and did just about everything else a tourist would do along some 1248 miles of the Texas-Mexico border.
I was democratic in my choice of restaurants. From the most outlandish Chicano grub palaces I traveled to dens that reminded me of a place my lawyer friend Warren Burnett commented on, while pretending to eat a bowl of chili: “I’d give $20 just to hear a dog bark.”
I began in El Paso-Juarez, the largest and oldest twin border cities, and then followed the Rio Grande across the rich screen of Texas landscape, beginning in the Chihuahuan desert and ending in Matamoros, 20 miles from the shores of South Padre Island on the Gulf of Mexico.
Juarez is the most sophisticated border town, a city with outstanding Mexican food, Mexican-style steaks, and Chinese food. Juarez has the warm, inbred politeness, and charm that comes from 314 years of tradition. These two p1easant cities basking in a near-perfect climate provided an ideal launching pad for my journey.
The next stop was Presidio-Ojinaga, towns I found to be simple and direct, relatively unconcerned with the throes and thrashing about of events in the 1970’s. Existing in a landscape of rock and cactus that does not nourish tender sensibilities, Ojinaga hides a light under its basket, one of the major surprises of the trip: El Ferrocaril, a restaurant featuring some of the best Mexican seafood on the border.
Leaving this uncompromising environment, the Camino del Rio winds 90 miles east to Big Bend National Park and then to Del Rio-Ciudad Acuña, site of the Mexican government’s gigantic “Acapulco-to-Texas” resort project on the Mexican shore of Lake Amistad. Ciudad Acuña, 1973, bristles with avarice and friendliness, an ambitious boomtown that eagerly awaits Yankee tourist dollars. Here I felt the spirit and optimism of the modern Mexican businessman whose plans for his city far exceed those of its American counterpart, Del Rio.
Another 60 miles southeast, driving easily through thick brush country of cattle and goat ranches, brought me to Eagle Pass-Piedras Negras. Piedras Negras is full of police, part of a program by the new mayor to solve traffic jams. The town is choked with cars and pickup trucks: prodigious roaring and screeching of brakes, taxis everywhere like iron cockroaches darting through the narrow streets. Amidst all this motor madness is the redoubtable Moderno Restaurant, for 40 years the place where locals and tourists alike relax and converse.
Moving always to the southeast, on past Governor Dolph Briscoe’s ranch headquarters at Catarina, I felt the approaching excitement of Nuevo Laredo, South Texas’ pagan place, a town to enjoy yourself in, to kick out the slats, to indulge. Nuevo Laredo has the best shopping on the border, fancy restaurants, rock-and-roll, and of course, the Cadillac Bar and the best Boys’ Town anywhere.
Pushing towards the Gulf, I brunched in Miguel Aleman across from Roma, Texas. In 1950, Roma was chosen by director Elia Kazan as the sight for his movie, Viva Zapata!, starring MarIon Brando and Anthony Quinn, because it so closely resembled the Mexican countryside 1000 miles to the south. If Mr. Kazan should decide to remake his movie of the 1910 revolutionary leader in 1974, he could again use this undisturbed city for exteriors.
In McAllen-Reynosa, twin cities cradled along the river in the Rio Grande Valley, I found a nightclub boom and several good restaurants including La Cucaracha, an old favorite that has recently been completely reconstructed. Now nothing was left between me and the trip’s finale in Matamoros except lunch at the delightful Arturo’s Restaurant in Nuevo Progresso, across the international bridge from Progresso. Finally, I ended my trip in Matamoros, with its excellent market, the superb Santa Fe Chinese Restaurant, and the Texas and US Bars on the square.
Before setting out on similar journeys, however, consider this caution. If you plan to take a foreign sports car towards El Paso, have it checked thoroughly before losing sight of your hometown suburbs. The garage sideyards of Fort Stockton, Pecos, Sanderson, and other West Texas towns are filled with carcasses of cars as unfamiliar to West Texas mechanics as the Apollo moon-buggie—an Elephant’s Graveyard of VW’s, MG’s, and Triumphs. The only relief until the lights of El Paso come into view are VW dealerships in Del Rio, Midland-Odessa, and Fredericksburg.
While driving west on I. H. 10, stop at the first Gulf station on the right in Fort Stockton and pick up a free copy of their road guide. It is a delightful information sheet containing interesting facts on the geography, industry, and history of the area from Fort Stockton to El Paso.
ASIDE FROM HOME BASE IN Austin, El Paso is my favorite Texas town. Conceivably it’s not really Texan; it lies closer to San Diego than to Houston. Yet Texas’ recorded history begins here in 1680, when three missions for refugee Indian tribes were established.
To appreciate the stark desert beauty at its best, drive up Rim Road to Scenic Drive at dusk, stopping at the scenic overlook on Mt. Franklin to look down on El Paso and its Mexican counterpoint, Juarez, lying in a horseshoe before you. On the left, Fort Bliss and suburbs; across the river in front, Juarez, a jumble of pastel tones climbing up the hills; to the right, downtown El Paso. When the sun sets, it’s like fire sweeping across both cities, bathing houses and buildings in saffron stain.
Juarez, as part of this splash of neon in the Chihuahuan Desert, holds almost half a million people and more than its share of damn good restaurants. The restaurants, gift shops, hotels, and bars in Juarez are grouped in three areas: along the Ave. de Juarez near the Santa Fe Bridge crossing to downtown El Paso; the newer area, east of downtown Juarez across from the Bridge of America known as the Pronaf; and along the main east-west artery of Juarez, the Ave. de 16th de Septiembre.
I don’t know why Americans cling desperately to the worst aspects of our culture when they enter Mexico, yet great numbers do. To our own irrevocable impoverishment, our McDonald’s, Colonel Sanders fast-food lunacy dies hard, and Mexican tourist officials unfortunately feel impelled to throw up these formica-coated edifices as an outrageous sop to the gringo who misses home. A fairly recent phenomenon I found in every Mexican border town: garish bistros built to allay the gastrointestinal paranoia Anglos lay on themselves.
The flagship of the Pronaf area is the Camino Real, a luxurious concrete complex of gift shops, restaurants, nightclubs, and a hotel, where singles begin at $20. Across the street is the Rodeway Inn, predictably efficient, predictably bland. Singles there start at $16.
Three other restaurants are near. Adrian’s is posh, built on two levels, with a raised bandstand. Steak, Mexican food, chicken, fish. Portofino’s: Italian food. Wouldn’t you rather wait until you are at Naples in San Antonio? The Decor is aptly named, sitting atop a furniture store. It serves Mexican food. The chairs and tables are pretty. With the exceptions of the above-average, but expensive French cuisine at the Camino Real, the food in these restaurants is wholly pedestrian, safe, but prepared only to sate your hunger.
Best-on-the-border Mexican food, Mexican-style steaks, and Chinese food are found not far from these monuments to Yankee splendor and El Chico TV dinners. Three restaurants grouped close together on or near the 16th de Sept. on the edge of the Pronaf more than make up for previous gastronomical mistakes. Each lacks elegance, but makes up by consistent performance. At each, the service is efficient and gracious; the food is exciting and dependable.
Julio’s Cafe Corona has earned an overwhelming popularity by presenting Mexican specialties that are the best in town. Owner Julio Lopez presides over an imaginative menu of appetizers and main courses served every day from 10 to 1 a.m. For an appetizer, choose Caldo de Julio (breast of chicken and avocado soup) or Salpicon (marinated beef, cheese, and avocados). Or try the machacado, a wonderful dish of scrambled eggs and venison jerky. The entree must be chicken enchiladas en tomatados (tomatoes and sour cream sauce over superb chicken enchiladas). The dining room is noisy and crowded, but you can relax with a liqueur in the quieter Chinaco Bar.
Hosts Victor and George Yanar oversee preparations of the best soups and Mexican-style steaks found on the Texas border. Their restaurant, La Fogata, is Houston attorney Percy Foreman’s favorite and the favorite of countless others who hunger for beef. Under the watchful eye of a special soup chef, the soups are prepared using fresh vegetables from the United States. Seafood is good: lobster from Australia, fish filet from Iceland, shrimp from Mexico. Their beef has no peer among Mexican border restaurants. It is bought from the U.S. and is well prepared. The Carne Asada Tampico Style is the best seller, but my favorite is Sonora Steak.
With his grave classical face, impeccable dark suit, and a trim figure that comes from his being one of Mexico’s top ranked handball players, Victor passes among his customers, chatting with friends. If asked, he will suggest you try a mimbrillo, a light, sweet liqueur to end a perfect meal. La Fogata is very busy on weekends, so plan to eat reasonably early.
There are two superior Chinese restaurants along the Texas-Mexico border, one at each end. In Juarez, it is the Lay Way In. Several years ago, two chefs quit the fancier Shangri La, a half block down, and started this smaller Oriental oasis. The appetizers are enticing—among the best are Cantonese fried shrimp and fried won ton. And my entree, Cantonese Duck May, proved excellent.
The Shangri La is monstrous and crowded, and is the leading money-making restaurant in Juarez. The efficiency of the waiters as they serve the Shangri La dinner for two ($3.80) or Mandarin Cantonese Deluxe for four plus ($5.00) is awesome. If the smaller Lay Way In is full, you will be more than satisfied with the Shangri La.
Along the Ave. de Juarez is the Mexico you came for—all the weird mixtures of smells which compose the anthology of Mexican main street. Walking along Ave. de Juarez, you pass the best gift shops, bars, restaurants, strip joints, and taco parlors accompanied by the omnipresent black-eyed youths, always hustling, croaking over and over, “Shine mister?”
Although the action has shifted to the more modern Pronaf, it is along Ave. de Juarez where a more abiding, a more traditional—and to me, the real—Mexico is to be found. The restaurants along Juarez reflect the middle-aged and elderly life cycle of the city: some vital and robust enjoying their best years; others slowly dying.
The best known restaurant in Juarez is the Florida. Second generation customers join the elite of both countries for lunch and a roll of the dice in the bar. Owner and operator Marcos Flores suggests this luncheon offering: quesadillas (cheese and chilis between two tortillas) and avocado salad. Followed by Puntas de Filete, a marvelously tender sliced steak with surprises.
Closer to the bridge is a 40-year-old landmark, the Central Cafe and Bar. Like an elderly widower who has unhappily married a series of young chorines, the Central has suffered from a succession of owners since the death of its founder, Seguro Gonzales, 15 years ago. Inside, it has a low ceiling, dark wood paneling, and a beautiful bar that runs the length of the front room.
Every Friday night my friend Malcolm McGregor comes to the Central with friends, orders a plate of Tostados Jalapenos, and begins his lemming-Iike march to the Corona. Ex-member of the Texas House of Representatives, unsuccessful candidate for Congress, lawyer and rancher, Malcolm is a man of great elan with a laugh that sweeps the room like a sunrise. If you are lucky, you’ll meet him in the Central.
The Central’s food is forgettable, but if you do stay, try the Boquilla Black Bass. It is brought in daily from the lake of the same name below Chihuahua City and is usually good.
If you have a European palate and want better-than-average food, try Martino’s, several doors down from the Central. Many long-time El Pasoans say this is the Numero Uno in Juarez. The chef can prepare any thing you wish. “Where the Epicurians Meet” is the accurate slogan of this crowded, but original, dining spot.
My favorite bar, the Kentucky Club, is nearby. It has all the criteria of a good saloon: a dark interior and cheap strong drinks made with good whiskey. The Manhattan is another good bar, where you get 35-cent drinks and on-key mariachi street ramblers.
Two corners down from the Santa Fe Bridge, turn right, go half a block and you’re at the Alcazar. Since 1951 this restaurant has been the theatre of operations for the sizable Spanish community living in J uarez. Platos regionales of Spain are featured, such as squid Catalan style, and snails or codfish Basque style. Mexican food, steaks, soups, and even Italian food can be had, but if you order any of these, you will be too.
The drawing card of the Alcazar is summed up in a phrase on the handout card: “Pouring Porron Provokes Pleasure.” Manager Rafael Sampdero, a native of Galicia in northern Spain, explains: “A porron is a glass flask which has a refilling handle on one side opposite a pouring spout. The idea is to grasp the handle and pour the wine down your forehead, eyes, and nose and into your mouth.”
The reigning porron-pouring champion is Rafael’s partner, Miguel Bilbao. Senor Bilbao can hold two flasks above his head, catch the flow of each bottle, and not disturb his puffing cigar.
Wine flows like a canal in this busy room, to the accompaniment of a flamenco dancer, a guitarist, a cartoonist who will immortalize your bibulous buffoonery, and hustling waiters bringing you blue Margaritas, the “Alcazar Especial.” If you’re feeling weird, try one of these. It looks like New Blue Cheer, but it’s good. (Blue Cointreau, lemon juice, and tequila.) Closed on Sundays.
Other spots in Juarez worth knowing about:
Virginia’s. Take a taxi because this restaurant is well hidden. A charming old house remodeled into a good restaurant, it has enticing specialties: banana and avocado soup (30¢); French baby eels in avocado; fresh seafood (their best dish) such as lobster tail Virginia style (with rice and fried bananas, $4). Reservations may be needed on Saturday nights.
El Taquito Mexicano. A hole-in-the- wall taco joint that opens at 5 p.m., it offers angelic tasting tacos for a dime. It’s around the corner from Martino’s.
Nuevo Poblano. This clean, well-lighted place is best for breakfast. They serve real orange juice, the best coffee in town; and have menudo with clout for Sunday morning hangovers. Try the Huevos Rancheros with a side-car order of chili con queso made from the best asadero (goat cheese) in town. A sign on the cash register, burned in fire, states “We don’t take credit cards.” It’s in the middle of town.
Sylvia’s Motel. This is a great place to spend the night. Off the lobby is their dark, romantic bar with a back door if an escape hatch is needed. A good four-piece marimba combo completes this perfect nook for messin’ around. It’s on 16th de Sept.
Casa Zea. This is the best leather shop in town, with beautiful belts and saddles. It’s across from the Central Cafe.
Arts and Crafts Shop. This is the best gift shop in Juarez. It’s down from Martino’s on Ave. de Juarez.
Mundo’s. The only gay bar in town. Men only.
Hotel San Antonio. This hotel is on 16th de Sept. across from the Juarez market. There’s no need to stay here, but have a drink on the roof patio and admire the sight.
IN THE SUMMER PRESIDIO-OJINAGA IS an iron kettle of a blazing town, a place where the sun pours through your eyes and spreads over you like scalding water. In winter the climate is nice, except when the wind kicks up, blowing clouds of dust across the desert valley floor.
For 26 years until 1968, Oliver Harper, owner and operator of Harper’s Hardware on main street, reported to the rest of the nation the high temperature mark of the day, usually tops in the country. Along with supplying his neighbors with nails and what-all, he dutifully continues to record weather data in an old looseleaf notebook kept in the desk drawer in his store. Drop in and check the weather statistics before leaving.
Crossing from Presidio to Ojinaga, you enter one of the few border towns that truly resembles small villages in the Mexican interior. Most visitors never see it, as they are on their way to the Ojinaga train station to catch the Ferrocarril to Los Mochis and the taxi ride skirts the town proper.
The only place to stay in Ojinaga is the Hotel Rohana, a fine hotel with tile floors, high ceilings, and a cool interior. Rates begin at $7 and there are recently constructed cabins in the back if the hotel is full.
Half a block down the street you will find La Fogata, (a popular name—meaning campfire—for restaurants all along the border), a roomy steakhouse, with a band on weekends. The steaks are of yeoman pedigree; the specialty is shish kebab ($2.40). Immediately after crossing the bridge, you will come to El Casino run by Senor Augusto Albo Rios. He will sell you good catfish or northern bobwhite quail dinners in season.
The blue-ribbon winner in Ojinaga, however, is the El Ferrocarril, the restaurant at the railroad station outside of town at the base of the only hill in sight. Two trains bring seafood up from Topolobampo on the Pacific coast three times a week, and it is among the best on the border. The shrimp special ($2.80) and red snapper ($2.40) are always fresh and well prepared.
BY GOING NORTHWEST OF PRESIDIO on Farm Road 170 for 38 miles, then 15 miles farther on a dirt road, you will come to Candelaria, one of the most isolated settlements in Texas. Candelaria is a church and a school, both white as a scar; a large storage barn filled with hay and a tractor or two; and next door, the General Store. The generals of this store are two marvelous women in their sixties, dressed in blue jeans and western shirts who sell food, clothes, hardware, and other staples to Candelaria’s 15 families.
Contact with the rest of the world is by mail delivery on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and by the steady trickle of tourists who sign their guest book.
Since the early 1930’s, Miss Frances Howard and Mrs. J. E. Walker had been traveling from Marfa to this remote area to visit their grandparents. In 1948 they settled in Candelaria and took over the General Store. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in his book, Farewell to Texas, writes fondly of his visit to Candelaria and of the famous Mynah bird, Feather, the toastmaster general of the General Store. Feather was totally bilingual—understanding and replying in Spanish and English—and reigned as village raconteur and trashmouth until his death in February, 1972.
Following a narrow, deep rutted dirt road, I left the General Store and, after riding south half a mile, crossed the Rio Grande, which here is just a 20-foot-wide bar ditch. Candelaria’s twin city is San Antonio de Bravo, a village of pigs, chickens, a rusting Chevrolet hulk, a general store, another white-washed church and school, and 15 or 20 adobe huts.
Justice Douglas was on his way to Capote Falls, 13 miles farther northwest from Candelaria, the highest and most beautiful waterfall in Texas. If you can find his book (now out of print) read his account of this splendidly rugged area of Texas.
DEL RIO-CUIDAD ACUÑA
MEXICANS ADORE PARTINGS. THERE ARE many abrazos; Vayas con Dios; promises of speedy returns; a continued volley of compliments, like echoing gunfire; and then fresh pleas to delay departure and have one more round.
Juan Garza Crosby, my host and friend, is a master of such farewell scenes. I have spent a delightful two days tramping through Acuña with Juan, seeing the city through his eyes and learning about astonishing developments. Acuña is about to strike it rich. The city is bursting with energy—noisy, progressive, moneyridden—from the most aggressive shine boys and gum salesmen on the border to a myriad of chamber-of-commerce types eager to sell their city.
Three downtown electronic component plants employing 2500 young women have opened under the U.S.-Mexico twin plant project; plans are in the mill for similar plants to open in the future. However, mostly the talk is of the Lake Amistad resort development, a multi-million-dollar project that will, in effect, bring Acapulco to the Texas border. Yacht clubs, marinas, several 500-room hotels, man-made beaches with white sand, and 3500 imported palms—all are scheduled for completion during the next five years.
The Crosby family has lived in Acuña for over 50 years. Juan’s grandmother built Mrs. Crosby’s Restaurant and Motel 51 years ago, and today it remains a landmark of quiet elegance and simplicity amidst the hustling of the city. The Crosby family lost everything during the 1910 revolution, and fled to Cuba and then to San Antonio. They returned to Acuña in the early 1920s. Since then they have worked hard, and are wealthy and prosperous. Juan is an economics graduate of St. Mary’s in San Antonio. Edward, also a college graduate, manages the family’s five ranches and farms. Patricio began Texas A & M University this year.
Any discussion of restaurants in Acuña must, of course, begin at Mrs. Crosby’s. The main room is long and airy, lined with arches and windows that look out on a charming enclosed patio shaded by flowers and overhanging trees. The food is the best in the city. For a light lunch, Juan suggests the excellent Mexican bacon and guacamole salad ($2); for dinner, succulent quail cooked in wine sauce, or the familiar Tampiqueña, a strip of tender sirloin served with beans, rice, avocado salad, and an enchilada ($2.75). The constant care that makes every customer feel important is supervised by Esther Aguilar, a diminutive, pleasant woman who visits your table, offering to solve any problem.
Behind and surrounding the outside patio are the motel rooms. Mrs. Crosby’s is a first-rate inn, a romantic, graceful place to spend the weekend. Two people in one double bed: $7.05.
Mrs. Crosby’s only culinary rival is Los Alpes, a motel and restaurant with nightclub and pool. It is the only other place to stay in Acuña. Dependable and more expensive than other Acuña restaurants ($6 sirloin compared with Crosby’s $3.25), the 39 rooms are divided into the new section ($12.50 double) and old ($10.40 double). Manager Raphael Croker is a pleasant host, if you want a place to swim, eat, dance, and fall into bed, stay right here. To reach Los AIpes, go down the main street for three blocks and turn left for one mile.
La Macarina, owned by Julio Castillo, is located in town five blocks down the main street and one to the left. It appeals to beef eaters, dancers, and at 9:30 and 11:30, floorshow watchers. In season, the large patio is open and very nice. The food is consistently average. The floorshows are consistently terrible. The night I attended, the floorshow featured a dynamite double act—a fast talking emcee-magician and the clincher, two men performing ballet-like contortions on roller skates. Senor Castillo recommends for December, “Pepe and his College Girls,” direct from Mexico City. Mondo Bizarro.
A nightclub-gift-shop-restaurant with genuinely good entertainment is the Colonial. The talent and the gifts are excellent. Eat elsewhere.
Some other Acuña attractions: Shangri La Bar. The overall color scheme and decor is Early Oriental Halloween: orange stalactites oozing from the ceiling; black walls with a 20-foot, fire-snorting dragon ridden by a, naked senorita closely resembling Olive Oyl. The dragon mural is ringed with small, blinking Christmas tree lights. Plastered over the wall behind the bar are hundreds of driver’s licenses, class pictures, business cards, hunting licenses and notes All Aggies call this number and ask for M.” “Karena, we love you. Please call home.” It’s on the main street across from Lando’s.
Lando’s Bar and Curio Shop. The curio shop is expensive and so is the bar which is located below street level and is plush, with American prices and a band “every now and then,” as the owner puts it.
El Mirador Restaurant and Bar. If you cross Amistad Dam into Mexico, El Mirador will be to the left. Their T-Bone is good; their filet isn’t. The houses nearby were used by dam construction officials and now can be rented for $10 per bedroom, per day. They offer tennis, horseback riding, swimming and fishing. A nice Texas couple from Houston, Mr. and Mrs. Royce Showalter, operate “Safari Sports” out of the Mirador and will arrange hunting trips to nearby Texas or Mexican ranches.
The Mexican Kitchen. My friends T. J. and Judy Jarrett took me to this warm, busy place that serves distinctive Mexican food. Their specialty is the Chimichanga (a rolled flour tortilla two inches wide with indecently tender beef tucked inside.) They also have memorable flautas, homemade pralines on occasion. It’s in Del Rio.
EAGLE PASS-PIEDRAS NEGRAS
STUFFED AS A STRASBOURG GOOSE, I sat in the dining room of the Restaurant Moderno enjoying the afterglow of a long dinner and talking with Tony Sanchez, San Antonio lawyer and fellow Mexican-food fancier. His bride of less than a year sat across from me. She is a beauty with hair and eyes dark as coal and a radiance that told me their honeymoon continued.
When talking Mexican food and Mexican restaurants, Sanchez doesn’t merely make a statement. He speaks in edicts. His voice rings with papal authority: “There are four places on the border one must always go: The Drive Inn in Matamoros, the Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo, Ma Crosby’s in Acuña, and the Moderno in Piedras Negras.” Case closed.
Certainly, there was no quarrel that night with Restaurant Moderno. Another border institution, the Moderno was founded in 1920 by a Chinese family under the name, Mexico Moderno. In 1943 the present owner, Rodolfo de los Santos bought the Cafe Moderno and it continues to be the gathering place for residents and tourists alike.
I had heard discouraging rumors recently that the Moderno’s food had slipped in quality and that it survived only because its name had been well known for over 50 years. True or not, a new manager and chef were brought in six months ago by de los Santos. Miguel Bidault is a graduate of a Swiss hotel school; a former Holiday Inn manager in Acapulco; and before a tragic auto accident kept him in bed for over a year, he was slated to open a new Holiday Inn in Monte Carlo. Mr. Bidault brought with him his teacher-chef from Switzerland who can create any dish not listed on the menu.
The two men form a formidable team, and the results are excellent. A different specialty Monday through Friday has been added to an already exciting menu. On Sunday, an especially delicious Paella a la Valenciana is featured. On the regular menu Bidault praises the Duck L’Orange stuffed with wild rice, served with gravy, orange marmalade, and baked potato ($6). The Mexican plate (black beans and chalupa) is fine. Moderno’s refried beans are unbeatable anywhere on the border.
The only discordant note comes from the band. The music is too loud, begins too early, and lasts too long. An awful mixture of Carlos Santana and Spike Jones, it drives on with the irritating monotony of a stuck auto horn.
Directly behind the Moderno is its only rival for excellent food in Piedras Negras, Restaurant Don Cruz. Owner Cruz Bernal was a former waiter at Mrs. Crosby’s in Acuña and at the Moderno before he opened his own posh establishment several years ago. The Don Cruz menu is substantial but lacks the creativity of the Moderno. Senor Bernal suggests the Huachinango a la Veracruzana, which loosely translates to red snapper accompanied by bell peppers and onions. The music is acceptable and the steaks are passable.
Located on the corner of the Piedras Negras market, across the street from the Moderno, is Soloman’s Cafe. Soloman’s is a place of radiant warmth presided over by Jesus Abraham, who suggests the shish kebab marinated in red wine to his customers who drop in at noon.
Two doors down from the Moderno are the two best gift shops in town: Memo’s and Riddle Curios, both owned by the Riddle family, one of the founding clans of Piedras Negras. On your left as you cross the bridge is En Los Rocas, a posh eat-and-dance emporium for the basic American tourist. You will realize all the deformities and amenities associated with identical gleaming palaces in Yankeeland.
NUEVO LAREDO RANKS HIGH IN the catalog of Rogue Cities. A raw, vital bitch-hooker dressed in an evening gown and Frederick’s of Hollywood bra, Nuevo Laredo rejects restraint and sobriety like an indigestible dumpling. A dope-smuggling center, a dope-murder center, [“The Laredo-San Antonio Heroin War,” TM, August, 1973] it has the largest gathering of beautiful, low-priced prostitutes in North America. Laredo has none of that wearying middleclass restraint and poise found in some towns where the thought of spending more than a day would appeal only to the bedridden.
No one ever died of boredom here. No one comes here to begin the countdown of what some misguided metallurgists deemed, “the golden years.” The quotidian bleat of the town urges you to eat, argue, drink, fornicate, laugh, spend, be happy.
Disturbers-of-the-peace, rockers-and-shakers, even Aggies lurch for the Cadillac Bar after paying the toll and crossing the bridge. Owner Porter Garner, Jr., is a Texas A & M graduate (class of ’45), owns a new beige, four-door Mercedes-Benz (license number: “Aggie 1”), and has run the most widely-known restaurant on the border for 16 years. He has the good natured smiling face of a Friar Tuck and personifies the Cadillac’s slogan, “Where old friends meet.” As the ranchers and tourists begin to drift into the Cadillac’s pleasant airy front room for dinner, Porter talks about this fabled institution:
“My father-in-law began working in New Orleans in 1903 as a bartender in all the old spots in the Vieux Carre. He was the last living bartender to work for Ramos of Gin Fizz fame, and he alone knew the original recipe.
“When prohibition wiped out business in New Orleans he came to Nuevo Laredo and opened the Cadillac on July 4, 1929. He wanted his place to be as prestigious, so it was christened, ‘The Cadillac.’ He retired in February, 1947, and I bought it from him that same year.”
I noticed the menu read, “Home of the Famous New Orleans Gin Fizz,” and wondered what happened to Ramos. “In 1949, we had a copyright fight with some folks in New Orleans and to avoid more trouble, changed the name. The recipe’s still the Ramos original,” said Mr. Garner.
Seafood is the house specialty, and the Cadillac serves the best in Nuevo Laredo. Porter suggests beginning with some of his turtle soup ($1), or shrimp a la Louisianne ($3) for an appetizer, followed by red snapper papillote ($3) , depending on your palate’s preference. There is no dessert. A Porter Garner dictum, true to his city: “When a customer eats dessert, he tends to quit drinking.”
One of the many similarities of Mexican border towns is the fact that one or two family dynasties dominate affairs. The Longorias are such a family in Nuevo Laredo. The family has prospered and contributed much to Texas-Mexican border life: banks, ranches, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs form part of the Longoria wealth. I walked with Alan Jackson from the Cadillac toward Fred and Dick Longoria’s establishments: the Pub (bar); and the Lion’s Den (nightclub). An insurance executive born in Laredo, Jackson is a man who quickly conveys a convivial, bacchic warmth.
He is half-Mexican and is as familiar with the language and the nuances of Mexico as he is with his own handwriting. We continued across the main avenue and down a warren of streets filled with pungent cooking odors and auto fumes, past an enormous Longoria mansion, until we reached The Pub. It is flanked on either side by the restaurant and nightclub. They are all connected and make up a compound of pleasure unique on the border.
Bill Luft of Nuevo Laredo did the decor of The Pub in early Texas-Mexican historical antiques; and the Lion’s Den in wild game trophies bagged by the owners. Old radios and gramophones, plus early 20th century photos of Nuevo Laredo decorate the Pub’s interior. But the best feature is an astonishingly good musician, Manuel Ponce. After finishing his day job playing at church, he comes to the Pub, where he sits flanked by piano and organ. Manuel’s left hand plays the organ; the right, the piano. He can play any number you request.
The two-year-old Lion’s Den has a Chicago-Iike, eight-piece band that begins at 9 p.m. A typical whacked-out rumble boogie parlor with sound to jar your gold inlays, the Den Is coated in Zebra stripes and leopard spots and is a teenage favorite.
Next is one of the three Christina’s Gift and Curio shops in Nuevo Laredo. Christina’s is another Longoria enterprise named after Fred and Dick’s sister. Ms. Longoria travels the world for the jewelry, clothes, furniture, colonial antiques, and fine handmade items you see in her shops.
Nuevo Laredo is the premier border city for shopping and no place is more impressive than the incomparable Marti’s, with its imperial elegance, that features flawless baubles and bangles in a strikingly beautiful building. There are two Marti’s: the main store is in town on the main avenue; the original is located across from the Nuevo Laredo market. Both stores, as well as Christina’s, carry Josefa dresses, silver, jewelry, home furnishings, and furniture.
Down the street from the intown Marti’s, Russell Deutsch continues a long tradition of offering the discriminating buyer the finest in jewelry, perfumes, silver, and china.
Carlos and Louie’s Laredo Grill is the newly introduced rich, pampered child of the restaurants in Nuevo Laredo. You can tell it right after stepping inside. It is tastefully luxuriant, unorganized, disheveled, a restaurant that doesn’t bother to comb its hair or pick up its toys. It’s a royal gorge where cattle herders, cheapshot hustlers with bolus bellies, and border bluebloods all mingle in a semi-provocative manner. And, of course, the kid is a success; Shirley Temple on PTA night.
The proud doting father is millionaire Carlos Anderson, a Swedish-Mexican who made it big with similar offspring located across Mexico. His formula is simple: find some sons-of-millionaires for partners, collect their cash, and make them wait tables and do the cleaning and cooking. Co-owners Luis Herrera from Puerto Vallarta’s Carlos O’Brien’s and Alvaro Bernot from Willy’s in Guadalajara are swimming in pesos, but they work like turks every night doing everything but loafing in the front office. The menu, like the decor, is eclectic and showy. For Carlos and Luis, the world is your oyster and they present them in a typical celebrated fashion. When you dine at Carlos and Louie’s plan to eat not a little or even a lot but in wretched excess.
Start with Oysters 4-4-4, four Madrazo (spinach and cheese); four Cardenas (garlic butter) and four Diablo (Mexican sausage). Follow this with gazpacho served in a beer mug, a watercress salad, and, finally, the lime-buttered steak or Barbecued Bones (fleshy sideribs.) Pass the Alka Seltzer. It’s closed on Tuesdays and is located on Nuevo Laredo’s main drag (Guerrero) south of the downtown area.
The old favoritos of Nuevo Laredo continue to be capricious. Yet with a little work, eternal verities can be found. Stay on the main street all the way out of town, and on the right you will see Cabana de los Novios. From the looks of the place you think it only serves impudent scum, but inside you join other cult-worshippers who call this dump home. Frijoles borrachos (beans cooked in beer) is a gorgeous item, as are the thick tortillas and shish kebab.
El Rio Motel and La Fuente Restaurant is the place to bag down in Nuevo Laredo. This great bar offers a unique, spellbinding appetizer made with beans guacamole, cheese, sausage and jalapenos. They’ve got good Tequila sours, and if you are feeling headachy and out-of-sorts, quaff the El Rio “Especial” (rum, pineapple juice, apricot brandy, and grenadine.) After one you feel demented. Singles are: $12; Doubles $16.
I liked the Mexico Tipico better before it was remodeled. Nor there is more glitter and less warmth—all the accoutrements of a Parisian tattoo parlor. Mariachis are still the best in town along with machitos, charcoaled pieces of cabrito.
Patterned after the Cadillac and still famous for Tequila sours is Latinos. A unique spot, it was opened in the 1930s by workers of the bar and restaurant union and continues to be operated as a co-op bar and restaurant.
Floor shows in downtown Nuevo Laredo are sit-and-yawn sessions. The performers run through their numbers with hideous expertise, displaying a lack of spontaneity that took years to perfect. For the record, you can find these show biz bummers at the Shamrock (9:30, 11:30, 2:30) or the Hawaiian Paradise (9:30, 11:45, 1:30, 3:30).
The Capr is in town, near the bridge. It is a nice place to dance to an anonymous house band that has been playing there eight years. A block down is a gross new place (restaurant, bar with rock band) called La Mansion. Decorated in what is best described as Early American Trim-and-Swim, it has a gourmet menu without a gourmet chef aand is a pulsating pageant of the best/worst Yankee bad taste.
THE TOWN OF ROMA BATHES itself in sunny memories of another age. It sits quietly unwinking at the work of the 20th Century, glad to be left alone. By now, I had formed the habit of walking the main street of these little border towns, stopping in the busiest cafe at noon to listen to the conversation. In Roma, it’s ranchers talking ranching and farmers talking prices. Nothing else. As tireless as cicadas, these hard-boned, perpetually tanned cowboys talk of meat prices, water supplies, and grain prices.
Lying across the Rio Grande in a dead calm, bathed in an afternoon sunlight, is Miguel Aleman. The townspeople here sleep in the afternoons, or sit in the cafes reading the newspapers, looking as if they were near succumbing to ether. I interrupted a teenage Chinese checker player for directions: “Four blocks down and two to the left you will find it. Say, cowboy, you wanna find some gorls?” With a tense sigh, I declined and marched south, determined to find the Rancho Grande Restaurant and Bar. Instead of the “gorls” I had a fairly good filet in wine sauce with a likeable price ($2.40). Breakfasts, sandwiches, and Mexican food are also available.
Waldorfs Restaurant and Bar has a passable filet mignon. The only other place to try in this parched, brickdust-colored village is Kahn’s Restaurant. However, it was closed.
AS YOU TRAVEL TOWARDS TEXAS’ “Winter Garden,” the Rio Grande Valley, you realize suddenly that the land is changing from sleepy, rolling bush land stocked with cattle, to vari-colored, tropical lushness. Palm trees stand erect, lining the road like palace guards topped off with green Afros. The tone and color of everything changes. A raw, massive purple burst of bougainvillaea; fruit trees sagging under their amber-and lemon-colored loads; cotton plants in well-ordered rows of rich greens topped with frozen puffs of white smoke.
In the middle of this prismatic explosion of color, across from McAllen sits Reynosa, the nightclub mecca of the border; a town that hums like a beehive after dark. Despite this honor, it seems domesticated, even tamed. It lacks the wild, brainstorming excesses of Nuevo Laredo. “Anything pressed too far becomes a sin,” wrote Lawrence Durrell in Justine, and Reynosa, despite its facade, always reigns up short.
For the tourist, the city lies in two sections: main street, where you eat, spend, dance, and drink; and the day-to-day Reynosa, up the hill, centered around the town square with its inevitable cathedral.
Juan Trevino’s Bar and Gift Shop is the traditional place to begin the evening. Like two other nearby splashy booze parlors, Trevinos is decorated in Chicano Hapsburg complete with rapids, waterfalls, bubbling brooks, and a plethora of pomp. It features the best gifts in town and a margarita that flows as smooth as honey from a spoon.
A few doors down, you find the Imperial, with its Spanish-modern inside and a dancing, recycled waterfall that is the show stopper. Against a background of organ music that used to be featured on Thanksgiving Day at my local Luby’s Cafeteria, I watched with reptilian concentration as the colored water shot up in time to the music.
Reynosa-bound pilgrims can find as good a menu as the city offers at La Cucaracha. Mrs. Tina Ortega got her beginning in the restaurant business in Reynosa in 1952, opening Joe’s place and expanding the first time to the original La Cucaracha. After two years of construction, a new La Cucaracha opened in March.
Mrs. Ortega is a strong, hard-working woman who presided over every detail of furnishings: curtains from Reynosa; chandeliers from Czechoslovakia; and a banquet room designed like an Arabian tent that is capable of holding over lOO people. The best nachos on the border are here, “Nachos Especial” (cheese, jalapenos, and beans are usual, but add to that fresh lettuce, tomato, onion). A chalupa-like nacho that is unbeatable.
Begin with La Cucaracha Special Salad (succulent and imaginative, with crisp bacon, cheese, Spanish olive oil, black olives, and a special dressing). Here, as in almost all Rio Grande Valley restaurants, the two-meat game dinner is excellent. Quail ($4.50) and Frog Legs ($4) are best unless you want to try a truly delicious Lobster Thermidor ($7.50).
Another long-time Reynosa favorite is Sam’s Place. Long tables in a brilliantly lighted room set off this landmark. Be sure to order the game dinner with refried beans.
After 45 years at the same spot and managed by the same family, the US Bar and Grill Restaurant has been remodeled and now is managed by a serious young man named Javier Willars. Ask him to recommend something not listed on the menu—Milanesa, which is sort of a Mexican wiener schnitzel (good meat cut paper thin across the grain and fried in deep fat). The US Bar and Grill is a good restaurant without interior frills except for the four beautiful mirrors over the bar.
I came perilously close to having a visionary raving fit after entering the Casa Blanca nightclub. The decor and music represent a wedding cake of styles that combine the unmistakable influences of Captain Marvel and Kitty Wells. In the Presidente Lounge, on the first floor, you can drag yourself around the floor to the best in Chicano-Nashville melodies. Waltz me around again, Willie.
After being blasted by a Latin schottische, I reeled panic-stricken and dazed uptairs to the 5th Dimension Club only to enter a Martian DeMolay chapter room. On one wall, a space mural; on another, the Mona Lisa. Dominating the whole thing was a large, white space capsule with tiny slit-windows, suspended in air, wherein sat a rock-and-roll disc jockey spinning out platters. Flanking the dance floor were rows of futuristic metal chairs, all waiting for the meeting or party to begin.
More conventional is the Alaska, a typical discoteque with lighted dance floor, black-and-white trendy interiors, and a band throwing out heavy doses of macho rock.
George’s Le Club on the square near the Hotel San Carlos is where, as a hopeless nightclub junkie, I finally got my fix. A tight, ambitious Latino rock band with a fine singer played to a full house—almost all locals—in a room that vibrated with good feeling. Avoiding the chrome and bright lights, owner Henry Garza has kept the place chic without turning it to chaff.
Downtown is Dutch’s Lounge, highly recommended for an evening’s final liqueur. A noble little bar, it has a low ceiling and plastic tulips sitting in small, recessed windows along with Mariachis and good drinks.
SINCE NOVEMBER, 1956, ARTURO’S RESTAURANT has been a comfort station for the hungry traveling between Matamoros and Reynosa. Manager Vicrilio Garza offers you an enviable selection of Mexican food. Try the “California Tacos,” (avocado sauce over crisp chicken tacos) or the “Chicken Envuelto” (tomato sauce over soft chicken tacos). It’s open daily at 11, with a band upstairs except on Mondays.
WITH THE DETERMINATION OF HANNIBAL, my red VW bus and I rolled toward the trip’s denouement. Fasting will begin in two days when the trip is over. Reflecting on the tour, I am again impressed with the dazzling variety of Texas geography; with the graciousness and politeness of Mexicans I have met. I am reminded once again of the beauty of the two cultures that live together in language, food, music, and architecture.
Ahead, skirting the Rio Grande, lay Matamoros, a town I knew well. I had been coming to South Padre Island, 22 miles away, for 15 years.
Matamoros remains a mediocre industrial city: not much humor, no verve, rather leaden and sluggish despite the heavy tourist influx from Brownsville. If the town were milk, I’m not sure it would boil over fire.
Brownsville is waking up and is enjoying a boom unparalleled in its history. Long the largest shrimp catching and processing center in the Western Hemisphere, it is enlarging its industrial base at a rapid rate. Big business is finally realizing the benefits of cheap labor and a near-perfect climate. Work begins soon on Amigoland, a 620-acre amusement park similar to Disney World, to be built near the old bridge.
Despite itself, Matamoros has one winner and several close also-rans in the restaurant field. Best-of-show is the Santa Fe Restaurant, for 12 years, a Chinese exotic ornament on the border. Inside is an arresting interior of quiet, Chinese ornamentation: bamboo columns and paper lanterns that provide the perfect amount of light: dim enough for seduction, bright enough to see what you are eating.
The menu is challenging, an extravagant variety of 175 offerings. Here are a few of the best: the Peking Roast Duck May ($2.80); Chow Fang Fried Rice (fried rice with bean sprouts, green onion and meat of your choice: $1.60); Chow Sup Kim (diced meats and seafood with Chinese vegetables: $2.80). They have excellent egg roll and sweet and sour dishes. The Santa Fe also serves Mexican food, breakfasts, sandwiches, steaks and has an extensive bar that includes Mexican wine.
Adjacent to each other on the square are the U.S. and Texas Bars. The Texas Bar has been at its present location for 45 years. It features a beautiful dining room with French chandeliers imported from Mexico City. Try the game dinners and the excellent hard Mexican rolls. In the bar, you can see the only solid white, stand-up bass fiddle on the border.
The US Bar must have been feeling old and self-destructive. It modernized, reached for the vinyl solution, and ended up looking like the women’s room at The Forum of the Twelve Caesars. But the lobster tail ($6) imported from Baja California is still good.
A wonderful place to meet the locals is Matias, around the corner from the Santa Fe. For 30 years, Senor Matias has continued the tradition of providing free botanas (appetizers) with beer or drinks. Stay long enough and you will try some of everything. The best is the guisado (moist, tender stew meat wrapped in a soft tortilla).
Across the street, the Piedras Negras Restaurant does the same thing in slightly fancier (they have a TV) surroundings. Remembered as the place Pancho Villa’s son was shot during a smuggling dispute several years ago, it is a favorite noontime haunt for businessmen. Try a tiny glass of liqueur called Angel’s Kiss.
From the sublime to the ridiculous: The Drive Inn, long a border legend, is in reality excruciatingly au courant, a restaurant-bar that is self-pollinated with excess. An insipid band of four violins contributes to this nightmare, along with high prices, watered drinks, and fellow tourists.
Open for two years, the Chale has nothing distinguished except three quail broiled or au vin ($2.75). It’s located two blocks south of the Texas Bar.
If you spend the night in Matamoros, there is the Hotel Ritz (“A Grand Tour of the Gulf,” TM, October, 1973), or the Holiday Inn, near the new bridge and arts-and-crafts center.
Matamoros has the finest market on the border, rebuilt after a disastrous fire of a few years back. Across the street on the east side is Dos Republicas a gift house of the highest quality and the best in town.
RED LIGHTS AND FAST WOMEN
IF YOU ARE A MALE over 16 and in a group of one or more, sooner or later you will be asked if you would like to find “some gorls.” Prostitution is legal in Mexico, and in most cities, plays as vital part in the local economy as the grocery store. In a country of great poverty, it is the only way many girls survive and support families. Albeit, it is not a nice way to grow old.
The girls in most bordertowns work in two distinct areas: at the top of the ladder are nightclubs or casinos, usually advertised with Las Vegasesque neon signs, plus interiors, and perhaps a floor show. The aristocrats of the border bordellos work these places, where the staff is checked by the doctor once a week for v.d.
At the bottom of the ladder is Penny Lane, generally a row of doors opening onto a dirty, dusty street. The lady sits in the doorway shouting encouraging suggestions as you approach, darker advice as you pass. Looking inside you see the bed, a basin, some chest of drawers and the inevitable cross and picture of Christ on the wall above the bed. Penny Lane does not enjoy the benefits of modern medical technology. Prices in the nightclubs begin around $10 and go up according to whims, quirks, and requests. On Penny Lane, the action starts rolling at $2.50 but this doesn’t include additional medical bills a few weeks later.
It is not a good idea to take wives or girlfriends into boys’ towns, unless you are in a very large group, and only then, in Nuevo Laredo. Better not to try at all.
All boys’ towns are well patrolled by police and to fight or refuse payment may mean a trip to jail. I strongly urge that you avoid Mexican jails.
A catalog of border boys’ towns:
Juarez. Unlike all other towns on the border, boys’ town in Juarez is in the middle of downtown, along Mariscal Street one block over from Ave. de Juarez. It’s a street lined with nice, dark bars; the rooms usually are on the second floor. Here I saw the ideal bar floor plan: as you enter, a bedroom on each side; narrow passageway to the cool dark bar and jukebox in back. The girls are not pushy. A simple, “no quiero” will suffice, and you can just order a beer.
Typical is the White Lake, which is a very casual, laid-back place with a good juke box. Other places nearby are the Palmira Club, Green Lantern, and Chava’s Club. Irma’s is the famous Juarez whorehouse ten to 15 blocks out of town. Its prices are steeper than in town, and the cabbies will try to take you here to get a higher fare.
Ojinaga. Boys’ town is made up of adobe buildings thrown up on the desert floor on the road to the railroad station. Inside the B-29 Lounge the aura is one of goat stink and cheap perfume. Girls are tough and sarcastic. For grizzled prospectors only. Prices are rock bottom. Go see the Red Windmill to believe it.
Ciudad Acuña. Boys’ town is ten blocks or so off main street, between downtown and the Los Alpes motel. The Penny Lane is the most downtrodden on the border. The 2500 young women working in the town’s electronic assembly plants give professionals stiff competition. Gold Palace is most expensive Capri or Cameliaare best bets.
Piedras Negras,. Located out of town, this boys’ town has a quiet, studied nonchalance. Any of the fancier places will do, but there is nothing to rave about. The best bet is to drive back to Ciudad Acuña.
Nuevo Laredo—The Broadway of Boys’ Towns, it is all behind a great brick wall outside of town on land provided by the government. Never drive your own car out. Smaller cars have fallen into chuck holes and disappeared for days. The one entrance and exit is carefully supervised by Nuevo Laredo’s finest. Girls come from all over Mexico to work in the four or five nicest places. This is the best on the border.
Most unique and pleasing structurally, both in building and in clientele, is the Tamyko, a huge Japanese pagoda with outside patio and fishponds spanned by arched bridges, surrounded on two levels by bedrooms. The girls are almost all between 14 and 18 years old. The architecture is eclectic to say the least: the ceiling is covered with egg cartons that look down on modern chairs and tables. Cigarettes thrown in the outside ponds killed all the fish. Look for the 50-foot pagoda.
The Merabu has a huge circular room lined with booths that reminds one of a paddock. The 60 girls work the 30 rooms behind the showing area until about 5 a.m. Look for a legendary six-footer named Solanda Martinez who sports the most incredible makeup job ever.
The best-known place on the border—Papagallo—has fallen on hard times. Clientele is way below average and surprisingly surly. It still has the best boys’ town kitchen. Go back and order a steak and soup and visit with the girls that are off-duty. The meals are safe and cost only about 75¢. The One-Two-Three is a sentimental favorite. The original fixtures were lovingly and carefully transplanted to the present location. Nice girls. Good music.
Be prepared in all the above places for a once-a-night police frisk. Ten or 15 policia will move through the clubs, politely pat you down, and move on. If you are foolish enough to carry a gun or knife into boys’ town, it will be confiscated and earn you a heavy fine.
Reynosa. Boys’ town here is very popular during bird hunting season but is undistinguished, however, in almost every way. Occasionally there are good shows. Your best bets are the Texas Cabaret or El Bastam
Matamoros. This is strictly low rent. Turn around and go back to Nuevo Laredo.
Americans sensitized not only to the traditional objections to prostitution but to the more current ones that have come out of women’s awareness will find a totally different attitude toward the world’s oldest profession across the border. Neither Puritanism nor women’s awareness are present. Instead there is a kind of controlled free enterprise which, whatever its effects on the people involved, is a part of the border scene that cannot be ignored.