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Food by VICE

Don't Try to Order a Cocktail at This Old-School Guadalajara Cantina

La Fuente does not have a website or an Instagram account, and it serves little more than beer, tequila, and pig's trotters to a diverse array of elderly regulars, politicians, writers, and local celebrities.

by Duncan Tucker
May 12 2016, 6:00pm

All photos by the author.

With no sign bearing its name, no windows, and a large board just inside the doorway that prevents outsiders from looking in, La Fuente does not seem the most welcoming of bars at first glance. The only indication that 78 Pino Suarez street is home to one of Guadalajara's oldest and most beloved cantinas is the faint piano sounds that drift onto the street outside.

Step inside this cavernous joint and it feels like you've stumbled into a Mexican speakeasy. Elderly regulars line the bar while large groups huddle around crowded wooden tables. The sepia walls could use a paint job and the complete absence of natural light makes it almost feel like a haunt for vampires. Given the number of politicians that drink here, some Mexicans would say it is.

It's tempting to imagine that nothing has changed since the cantina was founded in 1921. The menu is as minimalist as the decor, with chips, peanuts, manitas de puerco (pig's trotters), and tortas ahogadas (pork baguettes drowned in spicy salsa) comprising La Fuente's complete culinary offering. As for the drinks on offer, bartender Jesús Conrique tells me: "We don't serve cocktails. We don't have any signature drink that differentiates us as a cantina. None of that. It's pretty much just beer and tequila."

La Fuente does not have a website, an official Facebook page, or an Instagram account. The only concession to commercialism is the iconic logo emblazoned on the bar staff's aprons—an image of the old-fashioned bicycle that has gathered an immense layer of dust while sitting in its vantage point above the bar for several decades.

cantinalafuente2

The bar's unlikely mascot is an old bike forgotten by a drunken customer. Photo by the author.
Mariachi Gringo

Conrique, who has worked at La Fuente for 34 years, tells me the bicycle predates his time there. The story passed down by previous bar staff is that it belonged to an inebriated customer who came into the cantina one day in the late 1950s. The guy was so wasted that he didn't even have a drink there. He just relieved himself in the bathroom and then left, forgetting his bike.

"We don't know who the bike belonged to," Conrique says. "They kept it in the back for many years but no one came to claim it. Then when I started working here we repainted the place and we moved the bike. It fit perfectly above the bar and now we use it as our logo. Even though the place is called La Fuente, everyone knows us by the bike."

Just a minute's walk from Guadalajara's iconic, twin-peaked cathedral, La Fuente is nestled in the heart of the historic city center, meaning it draws a number of thirsty tourists seeking refuge from the scorching afternoon sun. Yet it has hardly been overwhelmed by foreigners, and thankfully its reputation as one of the city's more tourist-friendly cantinas has done nothing to diminish its traditional, bohemian atmosphere.

La Fuente has featured in a number of movies over the years, and most recently appeared in the 2012 flick , with the film's American protagonist auditioning there for a local mariachi band. In real life the cantina hosts live music every day and often draws performers from Guadalajara's Teatro Degollado, a neoclassic venue located just around the corner, for a post-gig singalong.

"You'll often find tenors or singers from the state choir here, having a few drinks and then having a sing," Conrique says. "We've also had rock bands like Maná come in here."

I arrived at about 6 PM on a Wednesday and the place was packed; the atmosphere electric. A white-haired man was up on stage singing classic Mexican ballads alongside a live pianist, while dozens of drunken customers joined in as if it were closing time on a Friday night.

Mexican cantinas have a reputation for rowdiness, but despite the raucous vibe there isn't a hint of trouble in La Fuente. "It's a safe place where people treat each other with respect. You never get any fights," says Alfredo Villalobos, a publicist and a regular at the bar. "We're all family here. I've been coming for 30 years now and I know everyone."

What does he like best about the bar? "It's very affordable," Villalobos says. Despite La Fuente's popularity, the owners have resisted the urge to hike prices. A mini 210-milliliter bottle of Corona costs just 15 pesos (about 85 cents US) while a regular 330-milliliter bottle goes for 22 pesos ($1.25). The cheapest tequila is just 15 pesos per shot, while better brands like Herradura Antiguo and Siete Leguas are still very reasonably priced at 40 to 50 pesos ($2.30 to $2.90).

This is significant because La Fuente's unusual ambience relies on not pricing out the regulars.

The classist nature of Guadalajara's society is obvious to anyone who spends much time here, with the wealthy generally barricading themselves away from the rest in the most exclusive bars. Yet La Fuente, which lies a stone's throw from Guadalajara's municipal palace, the state congress building, and the offices of El Informador, one of the city's oldest newspapers, continues to draw politicians, writers, and local celebrities, as well as plenty of others from all walks of life.

In a beautiful city scarred by social divisions, it is one of the few remaining places where the working class and the social elite still drink side by side.

Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter: @DuncanTucker

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La Fuente