Watch Your Step in Mexico!

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For years, I’ve kept a photo album on Facebook in which I document wildly dangerous sidewalk conditions in Mexico. These range from open manholes in the middle of busy sidewalks to unsegregated construction sites and situations of general disrepair. Some of the situations are so outrageous by U.S. standards that they are quite entertaining. I generally keep a sharp eye out for danger, and I suppose the local residents do the same… But on a recent trip to Guadalajara, one of the hazards got me … and it wasn’t even an especially obvious one.

Here are a few examples:

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Here’s the one that got me – just a raised area in the middle of the asphalt, but the sun was shining in a way that I didn’t see the outline:

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And here I am, with a banged-up face, scraped and twisted glasses, and a big scrape on my shoulder:

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When I tripped, I took several steps, arms flailing like a windmill, hoping to regain my balance. When I finally, and very publicly fell, several people came to my rescue, and a young woman took me into the bar where she worked, and broke out the first-aid kit… It was embarrassing to explain to the tough-looking customers of the bar that I just tripped, and wasn’t in a fight.

So… watch your step!

Mexico City in the 1950s

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A great picture of Avenida Juarez in downtown Mexico City in the 1950s. Several of these buildings were destroyed in the 1985 earthquake. From the great Facebook page La ciudad de México en el tiempo.

Avenida Juárez y sus alrededores en una imagen de los años cincuenta, cuando la Torre Latinoamericana aún en construcción ya dominaba el horizonte. A la derecha está el edificio de la CFE en la esquina con Humboldt, y se aprecian varios inmuebles que desaparecieron tras los sismos de 1985.Crédito: “Postales de México, D.F.”

Bernardo Fernández, Bef – Cuello Blanco

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My rating: 4 1/2 stars

Andrea Mijangos is back. Sadder and wiser, but still intensely loyal to family and friends, she’s intent on revenge, but this time she has the financial resources to do something about it. In her cross-hairs is Lizzy Zubiaga, the beautiful cartel leader who revolutionized the Mexican drug trade in Bernardo Fernández Bef’s lively previous novel, Hielo Negro. Cuello Blanco is a fun mix of genres, intertwining a gumshoe private detective investigating a very ordinary crime that may or may not have taken place, with busting a massive international money-laundering scheme with the dubious help of the American FBI and DEA.

The characters are outrageous, but at the same time well-realized. Former cop Andrea isn’t afraid to rough up a team of French flics, but also unwittingly stirs up the most basic instincts in the men she meets. “If you lived in the 1950s, you’d be a movie star” … “No, I’d be a wrestler, helping Santo fight mummies and vampires.” And Lizzy Zubiaga, while yet again revolutionizing Mexican organized crime, is into cosplay, extreme performance art and vicious murder, and has a truly frightening attitude to relations with the opposite sex.

The action is almost non-stop. There are murders – by gun, by knife, by explosion… even by sexual over-stimulation. There is a complex financial fraud, a Balkan arms deal, shocking performance art, a gang war and an explosive climax. You know, all the things you’d expect from a Bernardo Fernández, Bef novel.

A fun read!

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Óscar Salgado, dueño de la casa de bolsa Blue Chip, es secuestrado y amenazado para obtener la información financiera de Lizzy Zubiaga, la reina de las drogas sintéticas. Ella decide entrar de lleno al negocio del lavado de dinero junto con Salgado y su socio, Alberto Suárez. Su plan: crear un banco internacional para criminales de alto nivel. La única persona que puede detenerla es la ex policía Andrea Mijangos, con su nueva agencia de detectives. Mientras tanto, al otro lado de la ciudad, un misántropo dibujante de cómics aparece muerto en un cuarto cerrado por dentro, sin aparente violencia ni móvil. Son los primeros casos de Mijangos como investigadora privada, quien sigue obsesionada por ver a Lizzy tras las rejas. Ayudada por el Járcor, su ex compañero de la policía judicial, y con la ambigua amistad de Henry Dávalos, agente de la DEA, Andrea se verá cara a cara con traficantes de armas rusos, bandas de asaltabancos armenios y traficantes de tabaco albaneses en la segunda entrega de esta trepidante serie. Con el estilo único de Bef (Premio Grijalbo de Novela 2011 por Hielo negro), que combina lo mejor del género negro con elementos de la cultura pop, Cuello blanco es una novela explosiva que estallará ante los ojos del lector.

La Cerveceria Union – Puerto Vallarta – Huachinango

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The sunset was beautiful, and everyone was out for a stroll on the Malecón. There are hundreds of restaurant choices in Puerto Vallarta, ranging from wildly elaborate theme restaurants to thinly-disguised discos to American chains like Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company. I didn’t find the internet very useful on this trip, so I was left to make my best guess for dinner. Something about the casual atmosphere, upscale clientele and interesting menu of La Cerveceria Union gave me a good feeling… not to mention the oyster bar.

It’s a lovely big room, with an open patio perfect for watching the sun set. I ordered the huachinango – red snapper – and was delighted with the way it was presented. It was a perfectly grilled fish with only the slightest spice rub, served on a wooden carving board, and smothered with fresh cilantro and red onion.

Service was quick and friendly, the people-watching was fun, and manager David Monjaraz made me feel right at home.

El Huequito – Mexico City – Tacos al Pastor

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Tacos al Pastor is one of the most celebrated dishes in Mexico City. In all of Mexico, actually, but especially in Mexico City. El Huequito is my secret favorite place – not such a secret, though, as it was featured in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show. It’s a nice restaurant downtown, with a wide menu, but the pastor grill is outside, where you can grab a couple of quick tacos on the run.

The basic tacos are pretty, uh, basic. Slivers of caramelized marinated pork sliced onto warm tacos, splashed with a spectacular sauce of guacamole, thinned with orange and chile flavors. I like to go a little crazy, though, and order the Especial. It’s sort a make-your-own-taco affair, in which enough meat for several tacos is served in a towering pile, laced with delicious sauce, accompanied by a stack of tortillas on the side. My one and only complaint is that they don’t serve orange Fanta, my favorite drink with spicy tacos.

Vampiros – Mazatlán

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How could I possibly resist a dish called Vampiros?

It was a busy taco stand – actually a large restaurant in a row of those metal-roof, garage-like spaces – and I chose it because it was the busiest place along the strip of road leading to the beach. I got to chatting with a cab driver, who told me I had chosen the best place, because it’s where the drivers go… I suppose they have special culinary sensibilities.

With great expectations, I waited for my Vampiros, but was a bit disappointed when they turned out to be Tacos al Pastor. I’m not sure what distinguishes Vampiros from tacos, but they were absolutely delicious. My favorite tacos are in Tijuana and Mexico City, but these ran a close third. Richly spiced marinated pork, cut directly from the vertical grill, served with a wider-than-usual selection of accompaniments, I was thrilled.

Maybe taxi drivers know what they’re eating after all.

Hotel Encino – Puerto Vallarta

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Puerto Vallarta has been a popular resort for many years, and the downtown area surrounding the Malecón is where it all started. It became famous world-wide when they shot the 1964 movie Night of the Iguana, starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. I’ll always associate Puerto Vallarta with Francisco Haghenbeck’s wonderful novel Trago Amargo, in which his hard-boiled detective hero Sunny Pascal is hired to watch over Sue Lyon during the production of the film.

The Hotel Encino dates back to well before 1964, and has that delicious old-world tropical feel, including a roof-top pool and bar. With original tile in the bathrooms and balconies for every room, it’s built to let the air flow freely, and clearly, the air conditioning was installed as a gesture toward modernity. The location is great – just 2 blocks from the southern end of the Malecón

Woolworth Stores in Mexico

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When is the last time you saw a Woolworth store? They’re still thriving in Mexico. In Acapulco a few years ago, I saw Woolworth stand-alone restaurants that appeared to be competitors of VIPS. Not surprising, given that Woolworth was the largest restauranteur in the U.S. until it was overtaken by McDonald’s.

The stores have a special meaning for me because I worked for the company for 15 years in Canada and the U.S., and in 1992, I was offered the position of Chief Financial Officer of the Mexican company. Instead, I lost all my money producing independent films.

Doctor Simi

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Everywhere you go in Mexico, there will be a Doctor Simi dancing wildly in front of a Farmácias Similares outlet. They’re a huge chain of drugstores that provide medical services, and sell generic versions of most drugs. In Nuevo León a few years ago, I had some sort of insect bite on my foot that threatened to ruin my trip. A visit with a nice doctor, and a prescription from the drug store cost me slightly over $10, and the trip lasted another 3 weeks.

I’m always happy to see the dancing doctor.

Looking For Seafood in Mexico

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I took a long taxi ride to the beach in Tijuana to try a restaurant that Anthony Bourdain featured on his show. Guess what? Terraza Vallarta isn’t there any more. $22 in cab rides later, at least I had a nice conversation with the cab driver… It was one of the less expensive little white cabs, so I probably made his night.

On Saturday night in Hermosillo, I took another long cab ride – not as long this time – to a Sinaloa style seafood restaurant called El Charco. Before the taxi could leave, a lovely young woman raced out to tell me that they closed at 7:00 pm. I’ve come across this with other seafood places in Mexico.I ended up at La Cobacha, a huge place with an extensive menu. I had a mixture of shrimp, scallops and avocado in a sweetish red sauce called Manjar de Neptuno… Finally got my seafood fix.