You’re going to be part of an experiment tonight,” Justo Fernández Garibay said. “We couldn’t find chestnuts for the stuffing, so we’re using macadamia nuts.” I was about to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner at the Posada Coatepec, a beautiful inn owned by Fernández’s family on the outskirts of Xalapa, the state capital of Veracruz. When he’s not balancing budgets, Fernández, a representative in the legislature, oversees the menu.
Thanksgiving in Xalapa — I wouldn’t have thought twice about it in the “gringo ghettos” of San Miguel de Allende or Ajijic. But Xalapa is in the mountains, about five hours east of Mexico City, far from the usual tourist and expat circuit. After traveling extensively throughout the country, I hadn’t expected to have turkey dinner, let alone one with such worldly touches as tortilla rounds with potato purée and coal-cured sausage, a mille-feuille of salmon and cranberry sauce infused with orange zest. “We used to be forgotten here in Xalapa,” Fernández told me as he spooned tangerine sherbet so delicate that it could have been foam. “We only had motels, and the menu here had club sandwiches.” Now the Posada features a seasonal menu conceived with the help of a Lebanese-Mexican chef who trained with Daniel Boulud.
Most Mexicans and the few foreigners who know it have long considered Xalapa (pronounced ha-LA-pa) the stiff-collared brother of Veracruz, the freewheeling port city where the music goes till dawn. (Xalapeños like to say with both envy and disdain that the best-looking women in Veracruz are men.)
A center of bureaucracy and commerce that served for centuries as a transit point between the Gulf Coast and Mexico City, Xalapa
has never offered the colonial magnificence and storybook centro historicos of easier-to-love Mexican cities. Churches crumble in Xalapa’s misty mountain air, and unlovely concrete tends to be the default construction due to an unfortunate 1960s out-with-the-old campaign. Since the Universidad Veracruzana opened midcentury, and especially after Mexico City’s devastating 1985 earthquake, Xalapa’s population has swelled from 30,000 to nearly half a million. (The local student body is 30,000 alone.) The growth has been costly. Traffic is infernal, and the smog-caked buildings show it. Rainfall has declined by a third over the last century, and it’s become noticeably warmer; some theorize that this is due to the clearing of the verdant countryside to make room for the city’s expansion.
There’s now a busy trade in air-conditioners, a previously unnecessary commodity.
But with boom times have come bracing new ideas. The university, whose arts programs are considered some of the best in Latin America, has nurtured a cultural scene so robust that some residential blocks have more than half a dozen accomplished artists, musicians and photographers living on them. They show at places like Galería de Arte Contemporáneo and the Galería Universitaria Ramón Alva de la Canal, sharing space with exhibitions of things like Polish graphic design and Finnish poster art. Anchoring the cultural renaissance is the Museum of Anthropology. Its superb collection of Olmec and Huastec artifacts is displayed in a light-flooded Edward Durell Stone building with gently descending patios that recall the surrounding hills and valleys.
The food scene has kept pace, even if the town is still learning how to strut its stuff. Finding some of the city’s best restaurants may require the services of a private detective, but they’re worth it. Mediterranea, a sleek temple of Mexican-inflected European cuisine, is miles from downtown, plopped inauspiciously in the shadow of a newly erected Costco that replaced acres of coffee plantations. Kukiaio, home of a euphoric rice pudding made with chocolate risotto, condensed milk and brandy-marinated raisins, is in an alley I crossed three times before finding the restaurant — without the help of a sign. Mercifully, La Casa de Mamá, where the popular Bouchez brothers serve haute interpretations of Mexican standbys, is a brief walk from the main plaza.
One night I paid a visit to Akbal, a new restaurant-lounge just west of the city center and one of the most happening places in the city. The morning sun was disapprovingly high by the time I staggered out, after a night of eating, drinking and dancing with more than a hundred beautiful young people in a rust-orange space the size of a living room. One of the owners, Alonso Escalante López, all of 20 years old, had stage-managed the evening with remarkable ease. “So many places steal their culture from Mexico City,” Escalante shouted to me over the house music sometime just before dawn. “We wanted to do something different — without attitude, without wealthy people throwing money around or, on the other hand, getting drunk and getting into fights. We just wanted a place for friends.”
Xalapa’s wealth — Veracruz’s main industry is oil — and political power has always disposed it to self-sufficency, and the city’s current reincarnation is no different. It seems to take cues from neither Mexico City nor the colossus to the north (Thanksgiving dinner notwithstanding). There are few American brands on the shelves, only Mexican pop on the stereos blaring from storefronts, and the tabloids manage to do their work without ever mentioning Britney Spears. If Xalapa looks to any one place, it’s Spain, the mother country to which many of the area’s families trace their lineage. (“Don” is the honorific of choice among gentlemen of a certain age.)
Xalapa’s revolution has been decidedly gentle, choosing to incorporate rather than repudiate the past. (“We don’t rock the boat,” as one middle-aged architect told me.) In fact, it’s the younger generation that tends to long for tradition — a modern notion in its own way — while the older one plots municipal reform. I dropped in at the Galería Marie-Louise Ferrari, where the Xalapan artist Leonor Anaya was showing her latest work: 270 ceramic shoes, spurred by “a dream of running after her father,” according to Jean-Luc de France, a Parisian who co-owns the gallery. Tattooed university students mingled naturally with their parents, sipping pinot noir. Many are already parents themselves. A few ponytailed young people in pullovers slipped outside to strike up an impromptu jarana (a traditional guitar) session. Inside, the conversation continued excitedly about pedestrian-only corridors and bike paths.
Like many evolved cities, Xalapa has discovered that these days preservation is progress. Francisco Prado is one of the leading proponents of this idea, and his hotel Mesón del Alférez Xalapa was my sanctuary in town. The 16-room inn is a studied, luxe re-creation of a 19th-century Spanish grandee’s home, down to the freezing tile floors. In 2004, Prado also opened Hostal de la Niebla, a sleek little rooming house that reimagines the mesones where itinerant traders shared dorm rooms when they passed through town in the 1800s. “We wanted to recreate something that had been lost,” Prado told me. “There are people who prefer the lost life.”
Like a suddenly grown adolescent, Xalapa still abides by a few old habits. On-the-fly directions, for example, almost never deal in street names; if you want the corner of Bustamante and Ramírez, you’ll get “It’s over by Leticia, the one who sells mole by the speed bumps.” And though you have to go farther to find it, the farmland of old Veracruz is still there, and the fun of eating in Xalapa comes in large part from tasting food grown but a few minutes from the table. At the Thursday-morning produce market near the freshly repainted Church of San José, there was more variety — guanábanas (soursop), granadas de moco (a midsize fruit with tangy-sweet green seeds), berenjenas (a sour-sweet baby eggplant) — than at the Berkeley Bowl Marketplace, all of it organic. Roy Dudley, an American photographer and tour guide who has lived in Xalapa for 35 years, was taking me through it, giddy at the sight of such bounty. With relish, he led me to a vendor who held up a Mexican apple and an American cousin.
The American was twice as big, but the Mexican was twice as sweet.
Getting There and Around: Aeromar flies twice daily from Mexico City to Lencero, about eight miles from Xalapa. Roy Dudley leads walking tours of the city’s historical center for $100 (011-52-228-817-80-10; www.xalaparoy.com).
Hotels: Mesón del Alférez Xalapa Exquisite interpretation of a colonial inn. Sebastian Camacho 2; 011-52-228-818-63-51; www.pradodelrio.com; doubles from $50. Posada Coatepec Excellent small hotel with 24 rooms and a superb restaurant, five miles south of the city. Hidalgo 9, Coatepec; 011-52-228-816-05-44; www.posadacoatepec.com.mx; doubles from about $110. Posada La Mariquinta Twelve rooms in a lovely, shaded 18th-century house. Alfaro 12; 011-52-228-818-11-58; www.lamariquinta.xalapa.net; doubles from $65.
Restaurants and Cafes: El Café de Avelino The best java around, served in the driveway of a palatial house. Aldama 4, Coatepec; 011-52-228-816-3401. La Casa de Mamá A Bouchez brothers outpost in a historic house. Avila Camacho 113; 011-52-228-817-62-32; entrees $7 to $15. Kukiaio Serves creative fare like prawns with bacon in an avocado sauce. Callejón Enrique Gonzalez Aparicio 1; 011-52-228-820-33-79; entrees $3.50 to $7. Mediterranea Sophisticated cooking just outside town. Km 1.8 Carretera Xalapa-Veracruz; 011-52-228-813-87-75; entrees $7.50 to $32. El Salto de Xala Another Bouchez brothers spot serving updated classics. Murillo Vidal 238; 011-52-228-818-03-85; entrees $9 to $14.
Galleries and Museums: Galerîa de Arte Contemporáneo Xalapeños Ilustres 135; 011-52-228-818-04-12. Galería Marie-Louise Ferrari Alfaro 10; 011-52-228-818-11-58. Galería Universitaria Ramón Alva de la Canal Zamora 27; 011-52-228-817-75-79. Museum of Anthropology Av. Xalapa; 011-52-228-815-09-20.
Night Life: Check out jarocho, the Veracruz style of music and dance, on Fridays at La Casona del Beaterio (Zaragoza 20; 011-52-228-818-21-19) and Saturdays at Patio Muñoz (Pino Suárez 38; 011-52-228-818-75-62). To hear what local D.J.’s are spinning, head to Akbal (Bustamente 10).
Shopping: Eduardo’s (5 de Febrero 5-E; 011-52-279-821-54-06) makes handmade boots from exotic skins, for about $100. Take in the Thursday market next to the Church of San José. The nearby village Naolinco is famed for its leather.