Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The best coffee in Veracruz

There are plenty of things to see and do in Veracruz, but a trip to the port of Veracruz isn’t complete without having coffee at La Parroquia.

Visitors of all nationalities, presidents and heads of state make sure that La Parroquia is on their itinerary. Even in his haste to leave Mexico to go into exile in 1911, deposed-President Porfirio Díaz had time for coffee at La Parroquia before boarding his ship to France.

The original La Parroquia was located in one of the portales (porticoes) facing the small city plaza.
The café opened in 1808, taking its name from the building across the street — the parish church. As protection against pirates, Veracruz was a walled city and space was at a premium. The church with its bell tower and the government building with a lookout tower took up two sides of the plaza. Shops and businesses occupied the other two.

The café and its offspring have been owned and operated by a succession of Spanish immigrants for whom Veracruz was their port of entry to Mexico. One who made a lasting stamp on it is Fernando Fernández. On Jan. 12, 1936, as a 14-year-old boy, he disembarked from a steamship at the Veracruz pier. It had been a three-week trip from Santander with a stopover in Havana.

An itinerant photographer took Fernando’s picture wearing his Sunday best as he walked down the gangplank.

Fernando worked his way up in his uncle’s business and eventually bought it. But it turns out that he purchased the business but not the real estate. The day Fernando Fernández lost a lawsuit with his cousins over the real estate his waiters carried the two large, shiny Italian coffeemakers to the new location on the Malecón (sea wall) four blocks away and rechristened it the Gran Café de la Parroquia. The tables, chairs, waiters’ uniforms, even the tiles on the floor are the same as at the original location.

As it has been since the nineteenth century, the favorite type of coffee served is café lechero. The waiter delivers the patron a tall glass on a saucer accompanied with a spoon. The glass is only quarter-filled with thick black coffee.

Protocol calls for the patron to clank on the glass with the spoon to alert the lechero (milkman) to come and fill the glass with steaming-hot milk.

The lechero arrives with both hands occupied — one with a kettle of coffee and the other with a kettle of hot milk. He first asks the patron if the amount of coffee is to her or his satisfaction. If it is, he puts the spout of the milk kettle to the edge of the glass and starts pouring as he lifts the kettle high up above the patron’s head. Just as the frothy milk swells over the top of the glass, he brings the stream of milk back down. It is all done with such skill the dome of milk foam stays put and does not flow down the side of the glass.

At the Gran Café de la Parroquia on the Malecón the two tall espresso coffee makers from Turin, Italy, are where everyone poses to have their picture taken. Last week Fernando’s son Felipe told me “They still have 80 percent of the original parts. They were designed to use alcohol as fuel, we’ve converted them to electricity.”

I asked Felipe about the peculiar payment process that I had noticed on one of my first visits. He told me that was also his father’s innovation. “He streamlined the bottleneck high volume restaurants all share — the payment process. While in Belgium he saw this process and he put it into effect here.”
The way it works is upon leaving the kitchen each waiter puts his tray on a counter in front of the cashier. She totals the sale price of all the dishes and the waiter pays for it, on-the-spot, in cash. After that it is the waiters’ responsibility to collect from their customers. The waiters total up the bill right at the patron’s table and make change from their pocket. There is no waiting for the bill or for one’s change. Quite marvelous.

Felipe Fernández told me that at the beginning of their shift each waiter is given a 1,000-peso fund with which to work. They return it at the end of their workday. I always like streamlining financial transactions and enjoy watching the efficiency with which this one works.

When in Veracruz, make sure to have a frothy café lechero at one of La Parroquias — the Gran Café de la Parroquia on the Malecón, at La Parroquia de Veracruz next door, or at the Gran Café del Portal in the original location. All are run by the extended Fernández family. You’ll see why Porfirio Díaz made it his last stop before departing Mexico.

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