A Gift from the Orient: Cafe El Popular
Cafés de chinos are to Mexico what the archetypal coffee shop or diner once was to cities north of the border. They usually featured a counter and a few booths, nominally Chinese décor, perhaps a Buddha or a Chinese calendar. Offering coffee, pastries, and light food, both Mexican and ostensibly Chinese, many were open around the clock. Few now remain in a rapidly modernizing urban culture saturated with VIPs, Sanborns’ and American fast food outlets. An eponymously named 1949 film features a lurid mixed-race romance and is set in a typical café de chinos. They are part of Mexican urban lore to Mexicans of a certain age, a collective nostalgic memory.
Café El Popular, in the centro, was established in 1948 as a café de chinos by Luis Eng Fui, a Chinese immigrant, and his Mexican wife Felicitas. It has opened its doors in the same spot, steps from the Zócalo, ever since. When I started visiting Mexico City, shortly after the devastating earthquake of 1985, I would often arrive late at night and stay in one of the cheap hotels on Cinco de Mayo. Mexico City’s historic center, now in a felicitous revival, has lost a bit of the old time quirkiness it had when I first arrived. Back then, the mid-century past seemed to live on: ancient businesses, their façades and interiors unchanged for decades thrived on every block. Windows displayed archaic electrical devices, patent medicines, and corsets. No chain restaurants competed then.
Cafe El Popular
Cinco de Mayo 50 (the original) and 52
a block from the Zócalo
Tel. 5518-6081 / 5512-8523
Café Manuel, On Calzada Tlapan, to the left as you exit metro Viaducto, is one of the few authentic Cafés de chinos left in the city. And the chop suey is actually GOOD!
Casa Virginia is chef Mónica Patiño's latest venture, located above Delirio at the corner of Alvaro Obregón & Monterrey, the Porfiriana house is beautifully restored and home-style food is delicious - but noise can be a problem. Tel. 5207 1813; you'll need a reservation.
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