When I first moved to Mexico, I was broke. Not like, I was only eating tacos and drinking six packs of beer and staying in hostel dorm rooms, I mean literally, I had no money. I was young, in my twenties, and I had saved a few hundred dollars in cash doing odd jobs after winning a scholarship to write a book, which I never finished. I decided to go by train south from Canada to Mexico, mostly because I was going through my first really bad breakup and, also, because I didn’t respect myself enough to care what happened.
My heroes were the poets of the beat generation, Kerouac, Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and their crew. I knew that they had all at various times escaped the realities of America by heading south. I was enamored by the Infrarealists of Mexico City, who roamed the streets of Distrito Federal at night, slept all day, then wrote poems at the cafes every evening. I would do the same. My first stop was El Paso, Texas. I decided not to cross over to Juarez direct from the train station because the lineup of Mexican labourers on day visas returning home was too long. It was nearly sundown, the light low over that famous bridge to Juarez, which was more dangerous and violent than Iraq at the time.
I met some homeless, punk girls from Kentucky, and we had a few beers at a truck stop bar, then went to a parkette across from a Bank of America that was being gutted, post-2008 crash, and drank from the gallon of honeyshine they’d brought from home. Some local meth heads came by to smoke and started a scrap with us after trying to steal a knapsack. I ended up in a rundown flop house, sleeping with my cash rolled up in my fist and my clothes on. If I hadn’t heard about the ‘Couchsurfing‘ website, from a young drifter who’d been crashing on a boat in San Francisco, I have no idea what I would’ve have ended up doing. My first few months in Mexico, I was blessed with free beds and I subsisted entirely on bananas and instant coffee, both of which cost pennies.
The point is, I spent years in Mexico, eventually learning the language, living in a house full of college students and artists it was hard not to become fluent with a little patience. I fell in love, got a job teaching English at a small college, and later, much later, became comfortable enough that I could afford to do the expensive, touristy things that most travelers do everyday on their holidays. It’s hard for me to say if El Balcon de Zocalo is actually as good as I feel, but I love it. It’s a sentimental spot for me. It’s on a rooftop, at the height of excess, it’s full of “rich” people, and foreigners. But it does, without a doubt, have my favourite view of the Cathedral and Zocalo looking through a porthole. And it’s one of those places, where the Chef has clearly decided that every plating has to be equally as beautiful as the environment, which speaks to me as an aesthete. I’m a sucker for beauty, and the food here is beautiful.
Whether it’s dressed up octopus tacos, tacos de pulpo, or breakfast, avena y semillas con frutas, or one of their many gorgeous salads, this restaurant aims to make the guest feel luxurious. It serves cocktails on wood blocks, and tacos on marble slates. It’s one of those places that was instagrammable before photo apps were a thing. So, if that’s your thing, and you’re a selfie shark, then you should at least stop by for a light lunch.
On my first visit, I was with a rich friend from Vancouver, whose parents have oil & industry money. He treated me to guacamole peppered with grasshoppers, and overpriced Coronas, while we watch a youth soccer match. I was being spoiled, and I enjoyed it. Since then, I have returned many times over the years, my girlfriend once got violently ill after ordering raw tuna here, but in general, it’s a bad look to order raw fish in a landlocked Southern city.
In a sentence, if you want a nice setup for your photo collection, and you want to be pampered a little, El Balcon de Zocalo is your spot. But skip the fish, there’s two coasts in Mexico, and the city ain’t on either. Unless, you can get a reservation at Contramar.
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