If you have ever taken a stroll down 24th street between J and K streets, perhaps your attention was drawn to a large, colorful mural that portrays a medley of Latino history and culture.
The mural – created by Los Ángeles muralist Shaun Burner in collaboration with Sacramento artist Miguel Peréz – is a replica of the original created by the late, famous Mexican muralist Jorge González Camarena.
The original mural, ‘Presencia de Ámerica Latina,’ sits at Casa de Arte at the Universidad de Concepción, Chile. It is now a part of the new bar that will open its doors Friday (March 17).
Behind the colorful blue-and-red hues that bring to light the faces of the indigenous cultures of the Américas and the prickly green cactus behind a yellow backdrop with a sturdy Mexican flag, is a period reminiscent of a historic time when the Spanish clad of colonialism met with the resistance of the indigenous populations.
A slice of that history and culture is what makes México what it is today. And, that is what you will find on the other side of the wall where the mural is painted.
Through the alley on your left stands two large, baroque, wooden doors that slide open to reveal a cobblestone entryway lined with large agave plants in round clay pots on either side. The ‘sanitarios’ (bathrooms) are immediately on the left, while a dangling zig-zag of blue lights hovers over the custom-made wooden tables and stools that were imported from Rosarito, México.
On top of the bathrooms, a fake stray dog overlooks the scene at the bar while one side boasts a painted white wall with the emblematic Corona, Sol and Tecate Mexican beer brands.
Turn the other side, and there is a full bar, filled to the brim of Mexican craft beers, a small selection of mezcal from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and an assortment of liquors you can find at any bar.
What grabs the attention, though, is the blue wall behind the bar which boasts a large painting of a Mexican Day of the Dead catrina. Her brimmed hat, painted face and tantalizing look bring elements to life of a dazzling and colorful culture of México through the eyes of its people.
The table surrounding the bar encompasses a compilation of images, mostly of moments in time of places and people doing things as mundane as walking two mules through an open field. The images are on tiles and assembled like a tapestry that perfectly resemble the México of today.
This bar is Midtown’s latest pulse to its thriving night life. Cantina Alley sits in the heart of Midtown, exactly as you would find it, in an alley.
After two years of scouting Midtown for the perfect location and holding close their idea of bringing to Sacramento the first Mexican cantina on an actual alley, owners Arturo Aguilar and Max Archuleta will finally share their dream, and open their doors on Friday.
This Mexican cantina will give you all the vibes and jives of a true Mexican bar, if you have ever been to one in any part of México.
If people walk out of here with a memory of México, we know we have done our job.
“From the beginning, we wanted to do something different. Usually when you go to a Mexican restaurant, the food is always the same, the style of the restaurant is always the same and even the food is typically from only one region in México,” said Aguilar. “We didn’t want to do that.”
Archuleta, who is co-owner and comes with an extensive background in nightlife management, shared the same thoughts and vision.
“Throughout the process, we kept telling ourselves, if we find a spot and open up our own place, it can’t just be another Mexican restaurant; it has to be different,” he said.
That is why you will not find the typical chips and salsa on any of the tables as an appetizer. Instead, the cantina is meant to replicate the style, in both what it offers and what it provides to visitors, of all the foodie delicacies of a true Mexican cantina.
“We wanted the place to feel like, if those who come in didn’t know any better, they would think they are in México,” said Archuleta.
So what’s a Mexican cantina?
Throughout México, a cantina, traditionally was the kind of bar frequented by males for the purpose of drinking alcohol and eating botanas (appetizers). Some cantinas were places where men gathered to play dominoes, cards or other table games. They were noticeable by signs that expressly prohibited entrance to women and minors, though that has changed in the last fifty years.
In rural parts of México, however, it is still viewed as scandalous or improper for ladies or women to be seen visiting a cantina.
At Midtown Cantina Alley, however, there won’t be any restrictions, and instead, a focus on the botanas, mezcal and flavorful concoctions of both to create the most insatiable tastes to the palette.
“In México, when you visit a cantina, or bar, they always bring you something with your drink and its usually really good. It’s something for you to chew on while you drink and we are going to do that here,” said Aguilar.
The menu for the cantina will evolve and incorporate different foods from different regions throughout México. Their grand opening – which will take place on Cinco de Mayo weekend and commemorates the Battle of Puebla when Mexican forces ousted the French army – will feature signature dishes from the state of Puebla like mole and its varieties.
We wanted the place to feel like, if those who come in didn’t know any better, they would think they are in México.
There will also be a staple menu that won’t change and that will include an array of Mexican favorites like pozole verde, sweet-battered Baja fish tacos, gorditas de chicharrón or rajas, street corn, the popular esquite, tacos al pastor, and the most well-known street food found on late-night street corners: bacon-wrapped hot dogs and Mexican hamburgers.
“We are going to change the menu every couple of months so that our guests taste a variety of foods that are representative of all of México, not just a certain region,” said Archuleta.
And street food, they say, varies from state to state and region to region in México. Giving their customers a taste of that variety of influences that Mexican food embodies – from the tacos al pastor which derived from the Lebanese immigrants who came to México, to the pan dulce, which hails from the French occupation of México – they want to expose the Mexican food that is rarely put on Sacramento menus.
The cantina’s chef will be Arturo Cienfuegos (literal translation in Spanish of his last name: 100 fires) and if a name couldn’t suit a chef more perfectly, I don’t know what could.
Cienfuegos has more than 30 years of experience in the Mexican kitchen and worked with Aguilar when he was a teenager. A native of Mexicali, Cienfuegos is ready to deliver an array of authentic Mexican dishes and botanas.
And the drinks?
Cantina Alley hired infamous Sacramento “mexologist” – not to be confused with ‘mixologist’ Óscar Escobar who is known throughout Northern California for his unique concoctions utilizing virtually any ingredient (herbs, flowers, grains, you name it) with a splash of mezcal or tequila.
“When you want to be the best, you have to hire the best,” said Archuleta who firmly believes Escobar is the perfect addition to their team.
Escobar leaves his former spot of Mayahuel Mexican Restaraunt to take his creative concoctions to a higher, newer level.
“I have a lot of good, interesting drinks planned for customers. A lot of surprises too,” said Escobar.
The Alley’s third partner/contributor is Rubén Briseño Reveles who is a well-known artist and photographer with roots in Jérez, Zacatecas. A few years ago, while Aguilera managed an art gallery in Del Paso Heights, word of mouth came that he was looking for artwork for the cantina. He was given Reveles’s name and the rest was history.
“I am a strong believer in destiny and fate. So when I took my work to Art and Max, I knew we could work together and collaborate. They trusted me with my vision and my ideas and let me run with them,” said Reveles.
The feeling was mutual with the partners.
“We loved the work that Reveles brought to us. It was exactly what we were looking for; colorful, tells a story and shows parts of México that bring back memories for those of us who go back or haven’t had the chance to go back in a long time,” said Aguilera.
Every year, Reveles travels throughout México and captures photos of its people, the places and the everyday life experiences. He goes to the markets, visits the pueblos, walks down the cobblestone streets, sips down a drink at one of the local cantinas, relishes on the authentic foods and manages to capture it all through his lens.
At Cantina Alley, the catrina, and images on textile at the bar are his, as well as a large white hand-made tree where dozens of colorful hummingbird alebrijes swing from the twisted vines.
For him, Oaxaca bears a special meaning.
“There is just something about Oaxaca that I can’t explain. Maybe its the spiritual side or the authentic side or the preservation of its indigenous cultures. I don’t know, but its a state that is culturally rich in all aspects,” said Reveles.
Although he doesn’t consider himself a mezcal connoisseur, or a philanthropist (even though he gives back a portion of his art sales to organizations who sustain the indigenous communities of Oaxaca), Reveles incorporated a piece of Oaxaca in Cantina Alley.
“If you look at the lights, they are made with the ‘barro negro’ which is made by artisans in Oaxaca, and the mezcal comes directly from some of the rural villages which I had the opportunity to visit,” said Reveles.
For the past several years, he has traveled to Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead – a celebration he invited Aguilera and Archuleta to take part in earlier this year. What was particularly important to him, was ensuring mezcal, which is a drink that is gaining more popularity in the United States, was appropriately used in mixed drinks at the new cantina. From the onset, he knew Escobar was the man.
“You could give him a handful of ingredients and he intuitively knows how to make you something out of it. It’s almost like, sending your grandmother to the mercado and telling her to buy a bunch of stuff and then letting her make you something out of it. That’s how Óscar is,” said Reveles.
You could give him a handful of ingredients and he intuitively knows how to make you something out of it. It’s almost like, sending your grandmother to the mercado and telling her to buy a bunch of stuff and then letting her make you something out of it. That’s how Óscar is.
Rubén Briseño Reveles
And mezcal is a tricky liquor. Unlike tequila, it is made from over a dozen agave plants that grow in various regions of México. The tastes vary and derive from the different altitudes, soils and atmosphere in which they grow. Further, the way it is distilled is still artisan-like, done by hand and may have different aromas, tastes and smells.
In the United States, people are still trying to understand mezcal.
“Mezcal is the one drink that has both medicinal purposes and can be used to make cocktails. For the longest time it was known as the poor man’s drink, but I argue it is like the new Scotch of México,” said Reveles.
Mezcal is still made in rural villages by small families. It is made by hand and the process is untainted by western practices. Because of Sacramento’s farm-to-fork movement, mezcal is the perfect addition since it is both an art form and artisanal.
Escobar already has a list of cocktails he will create from scratch. The names: Margarita Al Pastor, El Whiskeylucan and El Poblano. The ingredients will be fresh and include a mix of fruits and herbs, all complete with a splash- or two- of mezcal.
The bar is also stocked with Mexican craft beer from five different breweries with more than 20 different beers, from IPA’s to stouts, pilsners, ambers and ales. Some are from the northern state of Monterrey, México and others from Ensenada to Cabo, San Lucas.
Opening the cantinas doors will be a dream come true for Archuleta who once worked at a bar as a teenager, owned and operated by his late grandfather Remigío Archuleta on the corner of Franklin Boulevard. From the late 70s to the early 80s, Clubcity was the place to be.
“I worked there side by side with him for many years and I would help him clean up, stock the bar, and just learn what needed to get done. I owe this bar and that experience to him,” said Archuleta.
As for Aguilera, who was born in Querétaro and raised in Guanajuato, the cantina is a place that will likely arouse a lot of nostalgia for its patrons who have visited México and have had pleasurable experiences.
“If people walk out of here with a memory of México, we know we have done our job,” said Aguilera.