Welcome to Last Call , where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
El Cardenal, the oldest cantina in Merida, Mexico, is one of those bars that just makes you feel cool. Nightly live music attracts a crowd and there's an old-school, bare-bones vibe: a baby Jesus doll in one corner, a set of those cool swingy cantina doors, and a menu of Mayan-inspired snacks, including a pumpkin-seed dip called zikil pak.
I went there to chat with the owner, Said Farah, who comes from an old Yucatan family, and who showed up with the kind of delicious mezcal you can’t find in stores—the kind certain men in Oaxaca keep in their trucks in unmarked bottles. We got drunk and discussed nostalgia, authenticity, gentrification, and how to find the best bars no matter where you are in the world.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Said. First of all, do you have any advice?
Said Farah: I have an observation. Everyone thinks living in the States is easy, and living in Mexico is hard. But it’s the opposite. I went to college in the States—people work their asses off to pay for school there. If you’re middle-class in the States, it’s not easy. I think it’s easier to be middle-class here in Mexico.
Let me be more specific. Do you have any advice for travelers who like to drink, who want to have an authentic drinking experience while traveling?
Sure. Whatever city you’re traveling in, go to the most famous bar and ask the bartender where he’s going after he closes.
Where do you go after [this bar] closes?
I usually have to go to another bar that I own.
What if you don’t have to go to another bar that you own?
I go home and walk the dogs with my wife. What do you think I do, snort coke? I go home and shower because I’m sweaty, and then we walk the dogs.
When did you buy this place?
I bought it five years ago. I love this bar so much. It’s my baby—it’s a very old baby, it’s 104 years old, but it’s my baby. Recently, my wife asked me, “Said, Do you think you’re in love with El Cardenal?” And I said, “I am!” Many people are. It’s always been a very popular cantina. When I was a kid, my grandfather, uncles, and father used to come here. A lot of the old cantinas of Merida are gone now. They’re other things, or they’re [owned by] the Mormon church. The Mormon church bought up a section of Centro and the bars that were there are gone forever. But El Cardenal is still here, and it’s basically the same as it always was. Except it used to be just for men, and for women who ‘sat and did their sewing’—which meant they were prostitutes.
How do you feel about old bars all over the world being gentrified beyond recognition?
Some people have criticized El Cardenal for being a “hipster bar.” They’re like, “Rich people go there, it’s gentrifying Merida.” Not true. Anyone is welcome here. A beer here costs about one US dollar. And if someone wants to come to El Cardenal but can’t afford it, we’ll pay the check. I’ve changed very little about this place. OK, we have dragonfruit mojitos and avocado pizza now, but we never charge a cover, we still close at 10 like they did in the old days, we’re still really into good manners, and you don’t see fancy decorations in here. People show up with pictures of cardinals sometimes and I stick them on the walls. Sure, El Cardenal is not the same as it was 100 years ago, but that’s because we’re not the same as we were 100 years ago. Bars are becoming something else. Cantinas are becoming something else. The culture has become something else. Change is good.
And now you get a lot of tourists in here?
Since about eight months ago, but I don’t know why. Maybe someone put us on a list. I don’t use social media or anything. I have no idea what’s happening on the Internet. Recently. a couple came in and they asked me to bring them this drink we don’t have on the menu anymore. I was so confused. I asked them, “How did you know about this drink?” They said they found us on Yelp. I was like, “We’re on Yelp?”
It sounds like you’re nostalgic for the past.
I bought a 100-year-old bar. I live in a very old house. All the furniture in my house is antique. I’m old-fashioned. My psychoanalyst says that I don’t want to die.
So it’s like you keep the dead alive by surrounding yourself with their belongings?
No. It’s more like, “Haha, I outlived you guys who used to own this stuff.”
You have lots of local clientele, too. What’s the biggest difference you see between tourists and locals?
Tourists never care what a beer is going to cost. They never ask for a bargain.
Is that a good way to be a less touristy traveler? Ask for a bargain?
A good way to be a less touristy traveler is to go to bars and strike up a meaningless conversation with whoever’s sitting there. After a few tequilas, you’re having deep discussions about life and death. When I went to the States for college, my English was very bad. But I went to Beer Pong Wednesday, Tequila Thursday, Whatever Friday. And I learned English. La fiesta is the best professor.
What if you’re too shy to go to bars by yourself in a strange city?
Read Lonely Planet. Go wherever Lonely Planet tells you to go. I love Lonely Planet. After I opened El Cardenal, I told my wife, “If El Cardenal ever appears in Lonely Planet, I’m going to have an erection for a week. And I’m not going to hide it.”
Why would you hide it?
Exactly. Why would you hide it?
Thanks for speaking with us.
Calle 63 Por 70 Centro