Why I Love This City Where Americans Aren’t Always Welcome
It involves Taquito Mexicano’s al pastor, a secret beverage called chucho, and the Wise Man of Juaréz
Some people call Julian Cardona the Wise Man of Juárez because of his sayings and the philosophical lilt of his speech. But there’s one he came up with on a recent trip there that stuck with me and made me laugh while the margaritas went down at a bar just across the border.
“The chucho has left a stain on your mind,” he told me.
I first came to Juárez and El Paso — sister cities that were once the same city before the complexities of the relationship between the United States and Mexico required walls, laws, and checkpoints — last June to report on immigration and the border. I didn’t realize back then how close the two cities were until I found myself in the office an immigration attorney. “Go over to Juárez if you get a chance,” she said. You mean, I can just walk over there? Yes.
Cut to dusk, and a pale Midwesterner walking solo into Juárez with no particular place to go.
What I found was nothing short of revelatory: Here, in this place we are constantly told is filled with death, the city roars with exuberant life.
In Juárez, where if you believe some in this country, Americans aren’t welcome, and where a teeming mass of undesirables is supposedly scrambling to breach our border and overcome our way of life, millions of people are living lives not unlike our own. Work, play, food, drink, love, pain, life, death.
Julian, the Wise Man of Juárez, has been here for all of that, doing a diligent job in documenting the constant drug killings that are so heavily associated with the city. He is my fixer and friend, a photographer, journalist, and man about town. It should be noted that, without him, my trips in and around Juárez would likely be much different — and not in a good way. Most of the time I’m in Juárez I’m with him and I’ve noticed that, in some places without him, I’m not exactly welcome. For all my singing praises of the city, it remains a relatively unsafe place for non-Spanish-speaking Americans to navigate alone.
Julian isn’t the only one with sayings, for I have my own when it comes to the Borderland: Every time I go to El Paso, I end up spending most of my time in Juárez.
Since that first trip in June 2018 — when I became obsessed with these dual cities and the chucho that only flows in one of them (you’ll understand later) — I’ve been back too many times to count.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the places down there that I love unconditionally. For, when you love a place, even a cockroach crawling out from under the bar and past your plate of nachos is not enough to keep you away.
Let’s start with my first love, the hole-in-the-wall — almost literally — that was my home for my first very long night in June of last year in Juárez. It’s called Bar Don Felix, and despite being on the main drag of Benito Juárez Avenue leading south from the Paso Del Norte port of entry, you can easily miss it. I found it because I just happened to be looking down when I stepped on the plaque embedded in the sidewalk just outside its humble and worn white door.
Walk inside and enter another world.
Here is Arrunflo, tending bar with a gray ponytail under a black Stetson. Here is a U.S. Army veteran, born in Juárez and raised in El Paso, whose wife left this world several years back. Here are some of Juárez’s working girls, one of them on his arm, and one or two quickly purring in my ear in words I don’t quite understand. Here is a sign that reads, simply, “Tecate y chucho 35 pesos.”
What’s that? What’s chucho? It’s bad, the Army vet tells me. OK, one of them, then. As the liquor flows down my throat and Arrunflo watches with glee in his eye, the vet tells me something that initiates a mini-panic attack: “You’re going to end up in the hospital tonight.”
Ha ha. But I did not. And one chucho turned into many. It also turned into a year-long obsession and Julian’s famous phrase. Chucho is made by putting the raw root of the chuchupate plant into a bottle of Orendain tequila. Let it sit for two weeks to a month and boom, otherwise ho-hum tequila becomes something glorious — the chucho.
The taste is difficult to describe. Earthy doesn’t really do it justice. I can tell you it perfectly masks the flavor of tequila, which I cannot drink despite my passionate imbibing. There’s a thing in Mexico and other machismo Latin American countries where things “make you strong.” Chucho is one of those things, and I can tell you from vast experience that that is the feeling I get when I drink it. Look online and the base of chucho — the chuchupate root — is hailed as a cure for everything from the common cold to HIV. Not joking.
But chucho means “dog” elsewhere in Mexico. It means nothing in El Paso, where I stupidly asked for it after stumbling back over the border that first night. It is only to be found in Juárez, where most of the bars on the main strip serve it but don’t always advertise it. At this stage of my chucho-drinking career, I can rank those bars based on the quality and flavor of their chucho, which brings me to another Julian phrase coined on my trip there in late June.
En búsqueda del chucho.
“The quest for chucho.”
In order, Don Felix’s is some of the best, followed by Bar Recreo, a historic institution east of Benito Juárez Avenue and through an unmarked set of wooden saloon-style doors off Calle 16 de Septiembre, named for Mexican Independence Day. Recreo’s chucho has strength to it and is not overpowered by the black pepper notes of Don Felix’s version.
Club Quinze has some pretty good chucho and is worth a stop for its additional historic importance: Here, Playboy pinups from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s line the walls and ceilings, a throwback to when American soldiers would flood into Juárez from El Paso’s Fort Bliss on the weekends.
That was before things got crazy. Before the drug wars of the late ’90s began claiming the lives of thousands of Juárenses. Before the Army came in to get things under control and killed even more. Before Juárez became a place where Americans don’t go.
This is not Cancun, or San Miguel, or the Michelin-starred neighborhoods of Mexico City. Juárez’s beauty is underscored by a silent brutality. The killings go on in numbers Americans can’t even comprehend — approaching 800 murders so far this year.
So Julian keeps me safe, and gets me to the places I want to go. My first night at Don Felix I was on my own, but most days and nights since then have been with Julian. He does, however, credit me with dragging him to Don Felix for the first time in many years, a place he calls one of the most vibrant and interesting bars in the city. I, in turn, credit him with taking me to El Taquito Mexicano, another Juárez institution serving the tiniest and most delicious al pastor tacos you will ever have.
The rules there are simple: The orders consist of four tacos and you should order two of them. It sounds like a lot until you see the size of the tacos, and then you inhale them like you haven’t eaten in days. You put the salsa verde on them because it is the best and full of lime juice. Then you balance things out by eating cucumber slices with the toothpicks provided above the toppings bar. You can actually do this even if you don’t have a Julian, because El Taquito Mexicano is almost within spitting distance from the turnstiles that lead you back to the U.S. So go.
ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons once ate here, the newspaper clipping on the wall reminds you. That was before tens of thousands of bodies began stacking up in Juárez. Julian will tell you about the before and after times — but he won’t drink chucho. He will, like we all should, eat the living hell out of Taquito Mexicano’s al pastor.
Julian likes salmon and red wine, a Portuguese variety of which we drank on my last trip there. Julian says he doesn’t feel like he fits in with many people in Juárez, because of what he describes as a simplistic lifestyle of working, partying, and not necessarily caring or knowing about what’s going on in the larger world.
Over Portuguese red in late June at his home, I told him about the marathon partying of a cousin’s recent wedding, and he told me, “You are more Mexican than I am.” I was honored.
In El Paso, even first- and second-generation Mexican immigrants often speak of Juárez as a no-go zone. At Jockey Lounge in El Paso — which you can walk out of and into Juárez in less than 10 minutes — the bartender once told me that she hasn’t made that short trip over the border since she immigrated to El Paso as a young woman. They play the same narcocorridos and Tejano music in Jockey Lounge as they do at Don Felix. There’s just the small matter of crossing that border into a different world, a border that is now more politically charged than it has ever been.
There are many places to go in El Paso, a beautiful city nestled in between picturesque mountains, the wastelands of West Texas and the deserts beyond in New Mexico, but my favorite is The Tap.
I first met The Tap at 10 a.m. on what I’m sure was a Tuesday. I’d flown to El Paso from Dallas to report on the family separation crisis last June and had arrived too early to check into my hotel. So The Tap it was. Downtown El Paso felt sleepy that day, and often does. Something about being roasted in a desert-sun oven will do that to you. The Tap is a day-drinker’s oasis of air conditioning, darkness, and tough-but-fair bartenders.
You go there and you eat the deshebrada nachos, maybe some enchiladas, and on Sundays have free menudo and bread as soon as you sit down at the lovely Formica bar. I last went there after taking Justin Hamel, the photographer for this story, into Juárez for a long day and night. We had gone to Club Quinze and had chucho from what Julian says is the longest-serving bartender in Juárez, then to Don Felix to catch the late-night karaoke crowd. After a brief argument with Customs and Border Protection at the port of entry (initiated by me), we walked to The Tap for some much-needed sustenance.
Cue the deshebrada nachos, and cue the cockroach scrambling from underneath the bar and onto my lap. The bartenders scrambled, too, helpfully sweeping the pest from my jeans and onto the floor, where it met its timely death. The nachos were fantastic.
A plate of them can serve three, so the pro tip here is that The Tap will let you put in a half-order. If you’re by yourself, do this, or else your night will end with the food coma that ensues. We finished them off — greasy, hot with bits of chopped serrano, slow-cooked pulled beef, and whatever glorious, melting cheese smothers them, a deeply fulfilling meal — before calling it a night. This is how you do it in the Borderland.
The next day, we went back to Juárez in pursuit of a question that has been nagging me since my first trip there: Where does the chucho come from? We wandered the market, eventually eating a turkey tail cooked in oil and a red caldo. Surely raising my cholesterol a few points, it was worth the greasy fingers I had for the rest of the day.
The market in Juárez goes on for blocks, a chaotic network of street stands under umbrellas and vendors in buildings or apparent buildings that may just have walls. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether you’re inside or outside. Every pepper and vegetable imaginable is here, including what I assume are probably some of the best and hottest chiles in the world. It is beyond cheap: $30 could fill your crispers for a month.
We met Julian at El Recreo, and had some chucho there. Then, to Taquito Mexicano for the tiny, delicious tacos.
And then something magical happened. A man overheard Julian and me talking about chucho: Where did it come from? Who in Juárez first started serving it? Why was it only in Juárez?
This man had answers, and he told us at least one of them: The first bar in Juárez to serve chucho was El Arbolito — the little tree — right on the main strip. But it had long since passed. The building isn’t even there anymore. But there is a new version, in Juárez’s gay neighborhood, and they serve up it right and sell it by the bottle.
After a margarita at the Kentucky Club, which claims to have invented the drink, into Julian’s truck and across town we went, looking for the new El Arbolito.
The bar has an ostentatious sign proclaiming it, basically, as the home of the chucho. It’s fairly deep in Juárez — well past where even the bravest of tourists might travel — and isn’t near anything that might be of interest to anyone other than a Juárense. Inside is a humble, squared-off horseshoe bar with a TV playing Creedence Clearwater Revival and other classic rock, and Patricia Leon, the matron of the chucho.
It was her grandfather, Francisco Caldero, who first introduced the stuff to Juárez. In 1940, Caldero was running El Arbolito down on the main strip, not far from the Kentucky Club (one of the only places Americans still go in Juárez). Like all Mexican tales, the origin story of the chucho has an element of legend to it. One day, Leon says, her grandfather was outside of Juárez, somewhere in the desert. He came across an indigenous man who was drinking a strange formula that no one back in the city had ever heard of.
Caldero, meet chucho; chucho, meet Juárez.
“It sold like crazy,” Leon told me. Eventually, the chucho spread to other bars in the city, but Leon insists hers is the best.
Chucho preferences are changing, according to Leon. Where previously it was an old person’s drink, more young people are imbibing now. In her bar that afternoon was a group of 20-somethings drinking shots alongside their beers. Behind the bar, bottles of chucho with an El Arbolito logo pasted on the front were for sale.
Both in shot form and as takeouts, Leon says El Arbolito goes through 25 bottles a week.
She says, “The recipe is a secret,” — as one would expect.
I bought a pint of it and got it back to Dallas, albeit almost empty. One of my prouder moments was telling the border agent that I did, in fact, have something to declare when coming back from Juárez: This goddamn bottle in my hand.
I have plans to make my own chucho, just as I have plans to make my own al pastor, and deshebrada, and good tortillas and great salsa verde, maybe a fried turkey tail or two. But I will never have any greater plan than the one that brought me to Juárez in the first place: to walk over a border and just discover.
We left El Arbolito and Julian took us back to the border to catch a flight back to Dallas leaving sooner than I’d realized in the comfort of Juárez that afternoon. The Wise Man of Juárez told me the quest for chucho had ended.
Justin Glawe is an independent journalist and national correspondent for The Daily Beast. He will soon be moving from Dallas, Texas to Savannah, Georgia.