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In Old Cuernavaca

The city where celebrity homes become restaurants.

April 28, 1999|JUANA VAZQUEZ GOMEZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I was a teenager growing up in Cuernavaca, I loved to eat at Las Mananitas. Every Friday night and every Sunday afternoon, I--along with most of the rest of the town--was there.

We would begin with a virgin Mary and appetizers in the magnificent garden, filled with plush green grass and wild peacocks roaming about while the sounds of parrots roosting in the enormous trees overhead filled the air.

Then we would move inside, to the shade of the covered halls and patios overlooking the garden, where we would sip the restaurant's special tortilla soup, eat blanco de Patzcuaro (a very delicate white fish from Michoacan) and finish with Kahlua and cream.

At the time, 40 years ago, it was my favorite restaurant in all of Mexico. It never seemed odd to me that the owner--Bob Krause--was an americano. In fact, many of the best restaurants in Cuernavaca have ties to foreigners, both from the North and from Europe.

From the 16th century conquistador Hernan Cortes to the 19th century Hapsburg emperor Maximilian to 20th-century expatriates such as the heiress Barbara Hutton of the U.S. and writer Malcolm Lowry of Canada, many famous foreigners have made their homes in Cuernavaca. One way or another, these celebrities have left their marks on the place. And, somehow, many of these landmarks end up with food connections.

Las Mananitas is only one example, albeit a particularly happy one. Krause was an entrepreneur who opened this restaurant in 1955. Las Mananitas operated as a cooperative in which everyone shared in the profits. Though he is sadly gone, the restaurant operates still, part of a luxurious Relais et Chateaux hotel with rooms that go for up to $400 a night.

The Hacienda of Atlacomulco, built by Cortes himself in 1535 as a sugar mill, is now a hotel named Hacienda de Cortes. Shaded by 400-yeaer-old amate trees, it's the perfect place for cocktails or cafe de olla--Mexican dark-roasted coffee made in an earthenware pot with a cinnamon stick and brown sugar.

Three hundred years after Cortes, Maximilian and Charlotte also adopted Cuernavaca as a retreat. They would organize lavish parties with delicious French cuisine in the lush 18th century Borda Gardens.

Maximilian was also fond of wandering to the neighboring town of Acapatzingo, where he had a girlfriend, Concepcion Serrano, better known as La India Bonita: the Beautiful Indian Girl.

In 1933, a restaurant opened in Cuernavaca under the name La India Bonita, specializing in enchiladas of mole and cecina (jerky). La India Bonita is also known for squash blossom soup (sopa de flor de calabaza), steak in guajillo chile sauce (puntas de filete) and what they call Aztec steak (pachola molido en metate): steak ground in a mortar and served with a peanut and tomato sauce spicy with chile de arbol.

In 1992, after a series of moves, La India Bonita arrived at its current location, one that also has ties to foreign visitors--Casa Manana, which was built in 1928 by the American ambassador to Mexico, Dwight W. Morrow.

The story goes that a bricklayer named Pancho Rebollo built the house. Every weekend for seven months, Morrow would visit the site and ask Rebollo when he would finish. He would always say, "Manana, Mr. Ambassador." When the home was finally finished, a commemorative plaque was placed at the front entrance reading: "Casa Manana: built by Pancho, the bricklayer, 1928."

When it was his home, Morrow received many guests there, including politicians, artists and society people. Gen.Douglas MacArthur and Helena Rubinstein stayed at Casa Manana, and it was there that Charles Lindbergh and Ann Spencer Morrow, the ambassador's daughter, began the romance that led to their marriage.

The Morrows hosted elegant dinners beneath the shade of the guava tree in the first of seven patios. The Morrows were especially fond of summery tropical fruit juices: mango, papaya, cantaloupe, prickly pear, watermelon, guayaba, orange and cactus juice.

In the second patio, adorned with blooming bougainvillea, lime trees and white mulberry trees, they would sip their coffee. In front of an enormous natural stone fireplace, the Morrows would offer Cognac and almond pastries, rice pudding, fresh corn torte and chongos, a dessert of cooked milk curds.

In the 1950s, Hutton built a refuge in Cuernavaca. Japanese architects, who brought in the furniture, material and paintings from Japan, designed Zumiya, as the place was called. They even built a Kabuki theater, a front door replica of an ancient Japanese palace door and tea salons.

Today, her home--still called Zumiya--is a luxury hotel and restaurant that specializes in Mexican and international cuisine.

Lowry, who immortalized Cuernavaca in his novel "Under the Volcano," used to drink enormous quantities of mezcal in the town's cantinas, which are famous for botanas--snacks such as tacos de gusanos de maguey, filled with agave worms, considered a delicacy in Mexico.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, his house too is now a hotel, called Bajo el Volcan.

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