Closing the doors at Jesús 23

El Buen Café, Jesús 23

After 17 years and 3 months I’m closing the doors at Jesús 23, the original and only location of El Buen Café, my restaurant in San Miguel. It’s not a sad occasion, as I thought it would be, but a wonderful opportunity to clean house. I’ll be reopening in a few months, just down the street, or at least I hope so. There have been some last-minute problems obtaining my new space, but I’m so sure that it’s my destiny that I’m headed out-of-town to track down the owner and secure the deal (story to follow in the memoir).

When I moved into Jesús 23 in 1991 I never would have imagined that I would spend such a large part of my life there. The small room on the corner with its lovely, wide arch separating the dining room had been my landlady’s father’s dry goods store in the 40s and 50s. He sold sacks of corn, flour, rice, and beans to his neighbors, as well as useful household items, such as soap, brooms and bottle openers. Supposedly, during the decades between his store and my restaurant, not a single business was able to keep its doors opened very long. A week after I sat up shop an unknown woman came in to tell me about the house and street, both inundated with spirits. San Miguel is well-known for its ghost stories and I always loved hearing about their escapades. She said I would have to make friends with them if I wanted to stay and that they especially loved fresh flowers. Easy enough, I thought, I would follow her instructions. Obviously, it worked and 17 years later I urged my family of spirits not to worry, I was only going down the street and we would still see each other often.

Jesús Street San Miguel

Many people walked through the old, black wooden doors of Jesús 23. In the early days when it was one of the only cafés in town, it was a gathering place, mostly for expats, but also for locals and tourists. We had poetry readings, staged plays, concerts, flamenco dancers, live music and community dinners. With time San Miguel changed and the café changed with it. No longer did people hang out chatting away the day– they actually started to have things to do. At first San Miguel had a limited number of telephone lines and no cable TV, so cafés played an important role in our social life. My friends and I would play cards in the afternoon during rainy season, when the torrid rains kept everyone inside. I would prepare for our daily activity by sticking candles in old Pepsi bottles, bringing out the cards, along with some snacks and wait for the rain to start. It did, always on schedule, at 4pm. The electricity would soon go out and the games would begin. I look back nostalgically on these long ago lazy afternoons, thinking only of the sense of community and not of the food lost in the back outs, when the refrigerator would turn off, sometimes not regaining power until the morning.

El Buen Café started as a coffee shop and bakery. It was one of the first places in town to serve non-Mexican pastries, as well as brewed coffee, instead of Nescafe. We expanded with breakfasts the following year and then into a full restaurant. Little by little, one step at a time, the café took its form.

Café Dining Room

Julio Iglesias showed up one day for lunch looking ever so tan and fit. My waitresses and I fought over who was going to wait on him and, of course, I won. He was friendly and gracious, returning the following day (while filming a music video) when I relented and let someone else take his order. Jack Hemingway spent a few weeks at a house across from Jesús 23 and came for coffee or breakfast nearly every morning. He was a wonderful customer, who asked me often to join him and since I never let a good opportunity pass me by, we spent many hours talking together. I will always treasure hearing his stories. Others came through the door as well–Mana, the Mexican pop group, had sandwiches and all my employees once again fought over who would take their order. This time I bowed out of the competition. Antonio Banderas never crossed the threshold of the café, but did send someone on a regular basis for brownies for his family when he was in town filming “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”. John Davidson performed one Friday night, with my friend Wade Ashley, to an excited audience. This happened right after Texas Gov. Rick Perry came for lunch. Even though I had no idea who he was at the time, we had a wonderful conversation about the state of Texas, mainly Austin, where I had gone to school and he currently lived.

Some of my favorite memories, though, are not of the rich and famous, but the people I got to meet throughout the years. Stories of old Mexico, San Miguel in the 40s, World War II, Vietnam, family sagas, I loved sitting with my customers hearing their stories.

Even though the new location will soon make its own memories, it won’t be the same. In place of the cozy, intimate dining room will be a beautiful lush garden where someone might actually have a little privacy. I will miss the familiarity and community feeling, but I’m looking forward to finally having some space…and an office. Stay tuned.

Three Milk Cake

“Recipes & Secrets from El Buen Café” cookbook

This cake has been part of the El Buen Café bakery since the beginning. It’s a traditional Latin American dessert—sponge cake soaked in 3 milks and topped with whipped cream. Our version is a little less sweet than some and has a secret flavor-enhancing ingredient: rum.

1 cake, 12-15 slices

2            cups flour

1            tablespoon baking powder

1            teaspoon salt

7            eggs

1            cup sugar

3/4            cup milk

2            tablespoons vanilla

14            ounces sweetened condensed milk

14            ounces evaporated milk

1            cup cream

1/4            cup rum

2            cups whipped cream

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Grease 2-9 inch cake pans.

3. Place the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and blend.

4. Separate the 7 eggs. Whip the egg whites until soft peaks form, slowly adding in the flour mixture.

5. Add the sugar, milk, vanilla and egg yolks to the egg whites.  Beat for 1 minute.

6. Pour the batter into the cake pans and bake for 25-30 minutes or until done.

7. Whip the 3 milks and rum in a blender.

8. After removing the cakes from the oven, place them on rimmed trays.  Pour the milk mixture slowly on top, using a toothpick to prick the cake until all the milk is absorbed.  Don’t stop until it is.

9. Decorate the cake with fresh whipped cream. (I omit the sugar from the whipped cream, because the cake is so sweet. You may wish to add it.)

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