illustration of Señor Frogs and people drinking
Illustration by Hunter French

A Love Letter to Señor Frog's, A Wild, Boozy Wonderland I Miss

The party restaurant is notorious for catering to spring breakers, but its absurdist reflection of Mexican culture is—surprisingly—spot on.
Alex Zaragoza
Brooklyn, United States
HF
illustrated by Hunter French
August 13, 2020, 7:00pm

Here's a memory I'm shocked I can remember so vividly, because of my sobriety level at that moment, which was zero: It was 1999 and I was 15 years old. My cousin Raquel leaned in close as Spanish pop dance remixes blasted all around us; a nearby server wearing shot glasses in bullet belts across his chest like a Party Rambo blew this whistle while pouring a tequila shot down a girl's mouth and giving her head a shake. "Do you wanna get really fucked up?" Raquel asked. It was the kind of peer pressure-driven dare that only works on teens desperately trying to prove they can hang. Naturally, I said yes, and Raquel handed me a Cucaracha—a flaming combination of añejo Tequila and Kahlua. And that is the story of how I ended up vomiting all over a table and eventually asleep next to a toilet at the Tijuana Señor Frog's.

Since 1989, when it was founded in Mazatlán, Mexico, Señor Frog's has prided itself on Mexican-themed debauchery—a scene where the party never dies and the shots flow like the Rio Grande, no matter the day or time. The website proudly and prominently declares the restaurant/bar/nightclub an "infamous party scene." Along with its sister bars, Carlos'n Charlie's and El Squid Roe, the chain has earned a reputation as the prime party destination for white spring breakers heading to Cancún or Cabo. However, for many Latinx people—Mexicans in particular—Señor Frog's has operated more as a constant in their social lives, a space that reflected the absurd and fun aspects of their culture and gave them exactly what teenagers are looking for on a Saturday night: somewhere to rage among the corny signs; servers shaking their asses against old ladies; sombreros, maracas, and other Mexican tchotchkes covering the walls; and, in the case of my hometown franchise, a framed photo of O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson drinking in one of the booths. (No one thought to take it down at the Tijuana location, which has since closed.)

Natalia F. is a 41-year-old Brooklynite who works in public media and grew up in the eponymous capital city of Puebla in Mexico. The city boasts a high number of universities and is a major tourist spot for Mexicans, and Natalia spent much of her adolescence partying at the Señor Frog's in her hometown and even dated one of its servers, which is how she ended up in possession of a stunning Señor Frog's branded denim jacket worn often in her teen years. "When I was growing up, that Señor Frog's was always the cool place to go, and the place that we would go out, mostly [during] junior high and high school," she told VICE.

Like Natalia, I spent many nights in my teens dancing and drinking at Señor Frog's, which was conveniently located across the road from my family's house in Tijuana. At night, the sounds of Whigfield's "Saturday Night" and Paradisio's "Bailando" (again, it was the late 90s/early 00s) wafted through my bedroom window, joining the cacophony of honking cars waiting in line to cross into the United States. It was where we had countless family dinners and parties, especially on nights they held their taquizas. My parents, entrusting me in the care of my cousin, allowed me to go party even though I wasn't yet 18, the legal drinking age in Mexico. As much as I was a massive dweeb, taking five AP classes and box-stepping in my high school production of Oliver!, I was also what we affectionately call a desmadrosa—wild, and a bit of a troublemaker. Once, when a doorman wouldn't let me in the club, my dad drove down and bribed him with a tenner. A lot of things could have gone wrong on those nights out, and there is certainly an atmosphere of sexual inappropriateness that permeates the space that creates the possibility of bad things happening, both then and now. Thankfully, all I ever left with was a hangover and, on one occasion, a missing shoe. Growing up in a city famous for its nightlife, with Señor Frog's as the backdrop for much of my coming of age, had its lasting impacts on my way of life. That desmadrosa energy has never left me, even if it's mostly dormant now.

"I was a little desmadrosa party girl growing up, too," said Natalia. "It set the standard for how I would party forever."

Frog's was the space that not just allowed that wild, reckless abandon to run free, but enabled it. "Towards the end of the night, it would become raucous and you'd start dancing on the tables and dancing on the bars, dancing [on] whatever surface was available," said Natalia. Where else will an employee of any club or bar help hoist you up onto a speaker so you can shake it to La Bouche? "The [servers] would start grabbing people and dancing, being kind of like animators for the party," said Natalia. "And so that always guaranteed that people would be riled up to some degree."

Indeed, Señor Frog's served as a rite of passage for many, regardless of whether they enjoyed the experience or not. Araceli Cruz, a Mexican American producer originally from Montebello, California, who now lives in Savannah, remembers the allure that Señor Frog's had on her as a young girl. On trips to Mexico with her family, Cruz was only allowed in the gift shop by her strict parents. "It felt like this forbidden strip club or something," she said.

It wasn't until the infamous Times Square Señor Frog's opened in New York City that she was finally able to step inside the famed but verboten establishment. In a notorious New York Times one-star review, critic Pete Wells described the restaurant as "a scripted theater of the inane with random outbreaks of mediocre Tex-Mex," adding, "Señor Frog's' brand of fun is so mindless that it’s embarrassing to give in to at first, but eventually everybody I brought there did give in, maybe because we’re all so desperate to let go a little bit." The Times was not wrong in its assessment of the beauty of this completely stupid and yet sacred space. When Cruz finally made her way there, she said it was "as cheesy and terrible as I always dreamed it was."

"It felt like a thrill to finally partake in this hyped-up buzz that I had told myself about that place," she said. "Finally being inside felt like a rite of passage. But it wasn't that much fun inside. It was crazy loud and crowded." Dining and dashing was the highlight of her first-time at Frog's. It's not for everyone, and that's okay.

What has always felt interesting about Señor Frog's is the way in which it reflects Mexican culture onto its clientele—not with a whisper, but bellowed out of a megaphone accompanied by bull horns and whistles. Natalia sees it as a "heightened reflection" of Mexican culture, heavy on the kitsch and with the lack of subtlety that is intrinsic to our humor and style of partying. (After all, grown ass adult dressed as children—drawn-on freckles and all—making weirdly sexual jokes on variety shows are standard entertainment in Latinx media.) As a result, the brand also made the space palatable to tourists, amplifying the stereotypes of the culture and allowing them to partake in the amusement. "It felt touristy to me for sure but I don't recall one single white person there ever," said Aidee Escalante, a 33-year-old veterinary technician from San Diego and Tijuana. If anything, Señor Frog's blurs the line between paying homage to Mexican culture and ridiculing it. But in the end, it was never meant to be taken seriously. Overthinking it, as I'm doing now, is not its ethos.

For Cruz, Señor Frog's came to represent her struggle with her identity as a Mexican in America—the sense of being ni de aqui, ni de alla; not from here nor there. She was an outsider, entering a place she knew was part of her culture but where she didn't quite fit in.  "In essence, Señor Frog's reminds me of my trips to Mexico as a kid," she said. But the party horns and tequila shots beckoned, and she doesn't regret her jaunt at the now defunct Times Square location. In fact, she felt like she owed it to herself to step through its doors and be one with the Day-Glo madness.

"The weird thing," she says, "is when it opened in NYC, it felt like a part of my culture was here."

Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE.