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Moving beyond cerveza lite

March 17, 2004|David Lansing | Special to The Times

Last fall I spent a month living in San Miguel de Allende, a beautifully preserved colonial town in the central highlands northwest of Mexico City. I rented a slightly untidy house from an American documentary filmmaker and agreed to take care of her two exotic cats -- the Bengal Boys, she called them -- in exchange for a slight discount on the rent.

Here was my routine: The Boys would roust me from my cramped quarters around 8 and, skipping breakfast, I'd write until 1 or 2. Then I'd leave the napping cats and, feverishly thinking about where to eat, head up Aldama, a narrow, pitted cobblestone street bustling with vendors selling bags of fresh jicama jazzed up with squirts of picante sauce, cups of sliced melon and Mexican papaya and, my favorite, roasted corn on the cob, slathered in mayonnaise and chile powder, that was hawked by an ancient woman who advertised her wares by singing out "E-lo-te-e-e-e."

Food -- even street food -- is serious business in Mexico, as evidenced by one of its oldest traditions, the comida, or midday meal, which is as much a social event as a dining opportunity.

Many an afternoon I sat in the shade of the laurel trees in the Jardin, the center of San Miguel, listening to locals and expats discussing ad infinitum where to take comida that day. Were they hungry enough for the five-course meal at Posada Carmina or should they, perhaps, go to the fine restaurant at La Puerticita and have a bowl of crema de poblano followed by the chef's well-known marinated skirt steak, topped with roasted chiles and a spicy enchilada sauce -- or perhaps his equally admired chicken breast in green mole?

Such decisions would take time and some serious consideration -- claro. So they would sit hunched over the wrought-iron benches discussing their options until someone would suggest sending an emissary -- usually one of the young boys selling the local paper in the Jardin -- down the street to this restaurant or that to find out what was the special or soup of the day.

What to drink?

My selection process was simpler. I generally rotated among three or four nearby restaurants with simple but authentic and inexpensive Mexican dishes. One of my favorites was a clean little restaurant just off Insurgentes called La Enchilada. The walls were painted in bright strips of cobalt blue and dusky red, the wooden tables and chairs an aquamarine. There was no menu. If you asked for one, the owner, Senora Claudia del Carpio, would shrug her shoulders and tell you it was not necessary. The menu was the same every day: chicken or cheese enchiladas smothered in either red or green sauce, or the house specialty, mole.

The selection of beverages was just as simple: Pepsi, Fanta or Negra Modelo. All right, yes, if you insisted she also had other Mexican beers -- Sol and Corona -- but those were only for the pig-headed Americanos who knew no better, not for the true aficionados. More than once I saw Senora del Carpio raise a single eyebrow and frown when a diner ordered the pollo enchilada con mole and a Sol. "Are you certain?" she would ask about their beer selection. If they insisted that, yes, they wanted a Sol, she'd walk away from the table in disgust, shaking her head.

Mexican beer long ago surpassed European brews as the American import of choice. Corona, the leading American import, sells more than 90 million cases a year; it surpassed the leading European import, Heineken, a decade ago and now accounts for more than double the sales of the Dutch brand.

Perhaps our favorite south-of-the-border cervezas have done so well here because they seem so familiar to us. Is there really any taste difference between Coors and Sol, or Bud Light and every sorority girl's favorite, Corona Light?

Not really. Which shouldn't be big news, considering that Grupo Modelo, the brewer behind Corona and Corona Light as well as Pacifico, is mostly owned by the Clydesdale-prancing folks at Anheuser-Busch, makers of America's favorite beers, Bud and little Bud. In fact, the marketers behind Corona have been so successful with the brand that not only is it the No. 1 import in the U.S., but it's now the seventh most popular beer throughout the country -- and rising.

If you tell that to Senora del Carpio at La Enchilada, she will smile and tell you a joke. "What do Corona and making love in a rowboat have in common?" she will ask. The answer has something to do with both being very close to water.

Actually, one could substitute the name of just about any Mexican beer in the joke and the punch line would be the same. That's because almost all Mexican beers, with a couple of notable exceptions, are brewed as light-bodied lagers similar to American and Canadian beers.

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