Pulque is a traditional alcoholic beverage produced from the fermented sap of the maguey plant. Drunk for millennia in the region that is now central Mexico, the liquid was once considered sacred. It was imbibed by the chosen as a sacramental representation of the blood of the ancient goddess Mayahuel. The narrative around pulque has evolved with the ups and downs of Mexico’s history. Dating back to colonial times, people would gather to drink the beverage in small bars known as pulquerías. There were once hundreds of pulquerías in Mexico City; now there are only a few left.

These pulquerías are most often frequented by older men who were raised on the drink and by younger generations who are looking to preserve the tradition. Likewise, there is a divide between the newer, brighter, more attractive pulquerías and the older, drabber traditional dives. Those who love pulque call it “nectar of the gods”; those who loathe it call it “horse cum.” Beware Mexico City’s bourgeoisie, who may try to persuade you to stay away from pulquerías, as some see these establishments as beneath their taste. They are classist fools.

On my first visit to Mexico City, I stayed with my friend El Tlacuache (the Possum). In Mexican folklore,  possums are humorously recognized as animals who like to get drunk, particularly on pulque. It was my friend’s love of the beverage that earned him the moniker.

(Photo by AlejandroLinaresGarcia via Wikimedia Commons)

Hoping to properly baptize me into the culture, Tlacuache took me to his favorite dive, La Unión de los Amigos. The interior has lighting similar to the torture room in the movie Saw. The bar, walls, and floor have the baby-blue tiles of an old YMCA shower stall. Hugging the bar are leathery men, none under the age of 50. Along the base of the bar is a stained tile trough leading to a drain. I am told it is for our convenience, so we can urinate without leaving the bar. The tall glasses are cut from the bottom halves of old hooch bottles, most of which are chipped along the rim.  

In the corner beneath a neon-lit altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe is an old jukebox filled with 1950s ranchera music, in particular the rugged balladry of José Alfredo Jiménez. A sign above the bar makes it clear that prostitution is not welcomed on the premises.

The opalescent pulque is ladled out of a 50-gallon wooden barrel next to the bar. The liquid is viscous, tangy, and strangely refreshing. If agave nectar gave you a buzz, it could be pulque. The jolly barkeep ceremoniously places a massive bowl of fresh salsa and tortillas on the tile bar top. I verbally commit to drinking nothing but pulque for the next few hours. Tlacuache is pleased.

Later in the night, the small crowd cheers when an old man enters the pulquería carrying a small wooden box with two wires attached to metal handles. A few yell out, “Toques!” He makes his way around the bar, challenging the customers to display their intoxicated manhood by holding the metal handles as he sends 125 volts through the wires. As the electrocution, laughter, urination, and pulque consumption carry into the night, I realize I have a new favorite bar.

The newsletter you need Get more Bourdain in your inbox. This week: Mexico.

A quick guide to Mexico City’s other fine pulquerías

By Maria Elena De La Torre Monterrubio

Pasos de Santa Anita, close to but not in the vibrant neighborhood of Coyoacán, is easily classified as a dive. Alongside the wide Avenida Centenario, it is easy to miss if one is not looking for the small storefront. Bereft of any apparent charm and far from pedestrian traffic, Los Paseos de Santa Anita has few customers—most are of the older variety—and is for true aficionados. As in many of the older, traditional pulquerías, there is no food.

At the other end of the spectrum is La Burra Blanca. Located in the historical center on a street that recently became pedestrian only, both the pulquería and the street (Regina) are full of young people and a lot of energy. Both inside and outside the pulquería, eyes and ears are quickly captivated by street music and theater as well as graffiti art, murals, and the dress of the diverse urban tribes of youth culture in Mexico City. The environment is friendly and accepting, and inside the pulquería one can also get beers and mezcal. Live music is often on tap.

A similar vibe can be found at La Chulada. A few blocks away on 5 de Febrero, you still get the hustle and bustle and human diversity of the historical center. The street the pulquería is on is not pedestrian, though, and its commerce does not revolve around eating, drinking, and other cultural endeavors. While the surrounding environment is less energetic, inside the pulquería the same young crowds make it an energizing place to get a few drinks and have a bite to eat.

Epifanio Leyva pours pineapple pulque. (Photo by Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images)

Pulquería la Malquerida is located on Eje 1, which intersects the Santa María neighborhood. This establishment is very much for young people and is jam-packed throughout the day. Drinking, talking, and laughing among friends are the main activities here, although one can order a little snack of locally fried Cheetos knockoffs as well. The shop itself is new, but the building is not, and the interior pays homage to the traditions of pulque.

La Xóchitl, located on the tough northern edge of the Santa María, is similar to La Unión de Los Amigos. Again, the physical space is intertwined with the tradition. For those with patience and a taste for faded glory, neither the pulquería nor its surroundings will disappoint. Inside, visitors are met with surly indifference by the one or two invariably older men either working or drinking there. After dark, the neighborhood is crime-ridden, so stay alert if you go late.

During the day one can appreciate the grand architecture of a century ago, today in magnificent disrepair. The pulquería itself is a nicely aging turn-of-the-century building. If the visitor appreciates the worn and frayed, they’ll leave the pulquería with a smile; after a few drinks, they can even get a smile in return. Unfortunately, La Xóchitl is currently closed as of January 2018, but there are plans for reopening soon.