Will travel for coffee? If touring Kona coffee farms, living the café culture in Vienna, and sipping iced coffee in Hanoi have topped your travel experiences, there’s another world city that must be on your list: Veracruz, Mexico.
You’ll be forgiven if during your first visit to a café in Veracruz, upon hearing the ring-a-ding-ding tapping of a spoon on a glass, you think someone’s making a wedding toast. That’s not the case — a patron is summoning a waiter for a refill of lechero-style coffee, some of the finest coffee served in the world. Is the tapping considered rude? Not at all. When you reach the end of your first glass — in the best cafés of Veracruz, your coffee comes in a glass instead of a cup — you’ll most likely be tapping away with your spoon, too.
The tapping is just one of the quirks of a city where they take their coffee seriously. And for good reason: The state of Veracruz is where coffee first made its introduction to Mexicans, back in the late 1700s, and the region still produces some of the country’s best beans today.
Discover the city’s love affair with coffee for yourself with a pilgrimage to two of its most historic cafés:
Drink Like a Local at Gran Café del Portal
Like almost every visitor to Veracruz, you’re sure to find yourself in the city’s historic zócalo, the main square, which is ringed by cafés and restaurants located under the stone portals or arches. Gran Café del Portal dates to 1929, and stands out as one of the most atmospheric in the city. You can get their coffee in a number of ways, but if you want to make like a Jarocho — a resident of Veracruz — you’ll ask for it lechero-style. (The word lechero means both “milky” and “milkman,” and the waiter is also known as a lechero.)
The waiter first pours a small measure of strong black coffee in your glass. He then asks, “Is that enough?” You can signal for more if you like your coffee strong. The lechero then lifts an aluminum kettle a foot above the glass. With a flourish, he pours, topping up the glass with hot milk — steaming but not frothy. Depending on the lechero, the whole process can be quite a show. Perhaps there’s a bit of magic at work, since the final result is an excellent glass of café con leche.
Gran Café del Portal has both inside and sidewalk seating. If people-watching is paramount, opt for an outdoor table — you’ll see a constant parade of characters, from university students and city workers to antique gents in guayaberas and sporty Panamas. The city’s historic cathedral is right across the street, and that too provides its own form of people-watching, with families going to Mass or passersby crossing themselves out of respect. As you sip your coffee, chances are you’ll be treated to one passing street musician after another.
Taste History at Gran Café de la Parroquia
A few blocks away from the zócalo, in the direction of the malecon, or seaside promenade, is another historic café — the most venerable in the city. The Gran Café de la Parroquia is over 200 years old, and covers an entire block just five minutes from Hotel Indigo Veracruz Boca Del Rio. Inside, it’s a yesteryear atmosphere of gleaming copper urns, terrazzo floors and cane-backed chairs. El Gran Café de la Parroquia is one of the pulse points of the city — a meeting place for politicians, journalists and intellectuals. On a busy day, the café serves over 4,000 people. Here, too, lechero-style coffee is the main attraction. Afterwards, it’s an easy amble across the street to the myriad shops and stalls of the malecon, where you can purchase reasonably priced bags of Veracruz coffee to take home.
The café also is said to have played a role in the tradition of tinkling the glass. Legend has it that many decades ago, a passing trolley man would stop his trolley and ring his bell to summon a waiter to bring him a fresh cup of coffee. He became such a fixture that when he died, and the trolley carried his casket past El Gran Café de la Parroquia on its way to the funeral, the patrons stood up and — out of respect — tinkled their spoons against their glasses. A custom was born.