Most old-school Mexican cantinas have their myths but few, if any, are as steeped in legend as Guadalajara's oldest watering hole, La Iberia. To explore its past is to delve into a weird and wonderful world of iconic revolutionaries, trigger-happy gunslingers, attentive ghosts, and high-stakes poker games, all served up with a hearty helping of stewed cats and boiled bulls' penises.
Located at 9 Calle Alameda, just north of Guadalajara's rundown city center, the cantina was first founded under the name El Bosque sometime in the 1870s. Now Mexico's second biggest metropolis, Guadalajara was only a fraction of its current size back then. El Bosque's moniker owed to its position on the wooded edge of the city.
It changed names in 1904, the Spanish manager Martín Martínez López tells me excitedly, when a group of his compatriots won the cantina in a game of poker with the former owner. The Spaniards renamed the cantina La Iberia, and although it has changed hands several times since then, its Iberian heritage lives on through Martínez, a 37-year-old Galician with bright blue eyes.
Like La Iberia's potent house cocktail, La Batanga de Doña Chela, many of the cantina's myths should be taken with a hefty dose of salt. Yet simply hearing the jovial bar staff recount the tall tales associated with the cantina is half the fun in itself.
Martínez's most outlandish story is that of ""—a former employee who is said to haunt the establishment. "La viejita entambada is the ghost of an old lady who visits us by night," he says. "They say she was murdered and her body was buried in the walls of La Iberia. She sometimes appears out back and comes through the kitchen to the bar. She always asks people, 'What can I offer you?' so we think she must have worked here. I haven't seen her, but about 15 different people say they have, including former managers, workers, and customers."
Other legends are supported by at least some historical evidence. The cantina's menu features a faded sepia photo of Pancho Villa, the outlaw hero of the Mexican Revolution, apparently posing in front of La Iberia. Martínez believes it was taken when Villa's army passed through Guadalajara in late 1914.
Another famous bandit who visited La Iberia was Rodolfo Álvarez del Castillo, a Mexican cowboy better known as "El Remington" after his favored gun manufacturer. "He was a mythical, bloodthirsty cowboy who carried two pistols and was very quick on the draw," Martínez says, pointing to a framed newspaper clipping mounted on the wall. The article tells how El Remington and his brother came to La Iberia on November 20, 1931, to compete in a horserace with two rival gunslingers.
Without getting off their horses, the cowboys enjoyed generous servings of tequila outside the bar as they geared up for the race. Yet the competition quickly escalated into a shootout, with El Remington and his brother shooting their opponents to death before exchanging fire with a local police officer as they fled the scene. Remington's life story later became the subject of the 1982 movie Aquel famoso Remington.
While many of Guadalajara's oldest cantinas feel like they are stuck in a time warp, one of the biggest changes to have taken place is that women are now welcome in these establishments. It has undoubtedly been a change for the best.
"In the days when women were not allowed in cantinas, the men used to piss against the bar instead of getting out of their seats to go to the bathroom," Martínez says. "Back then a cantina wasn't a cantina unless it smelled of urine and sawdust, which they used to soak up the liquid on the barroom floor."
In those days, Martínez says, "a woman known as Doña Chela used to come here in search of her husband to drag him back home. But after her husband died and they started letting women come into the cantinas, Doña Chela started coming here to drink her . Now her children have started coming and we hope to see her grandchildren in here soon."
A batanga is a classic Mexican cocktail made with tequila blanco, Coca-Cola, and lime, but Doña Chela had the bartenders make up her own bastard version which soon became La Iberia's most popular drink. "La Batanga de Doña Chela is made with ice, salt, lime, mint, an ounce of vodka, an ounce of tequila blanco, a dash of aguardiente, and a little Coca-Cola," Martínez says. "It's potent but refreshing."
As for the food on offer, Martínez claims that once upon a time the chef used to round up stray cats every Saturday and cook them up into birria, a delicious meaty stew. Nowadays, La Iberia serves up an array of standard cantina fare, including tortas ahogadas, Guadalajara's local specialty, and shrimp soup, tacos dorados, and viril de toro (bull's penis).
While the latter dish is actually considered a traditional snack in these parts, Martínez has a sneaky way of getting customers to see beyond its unappetising name and appearance. "So as not to condition people that they're eating a bull's dick, we tell them it's abulón de tierra, a kind of land-based seafood that doesn't exist," he explains. "We boil it in vinegar and people think it's like pig skin or some kind of seafood."
"Once they've eaten it we tell them what it was, so that they know they've been to a traditional cantina and tried bull's penis!" Martínez adds with a grin. "Some say they enjoyed it, but once we tell them what it was they won't eat any more. Others ask for a second helping!"
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