HUSSONG’S: A Sweet and Salty Taste of Old Mexico
All images by ©IBIT/G. Gross unless otherwise identified. All rights reserved.
In this century-plus-old cantina, you can knock back margaritas in the place where the drink was invented. But that’s not the only “flavor” you’ll get of a bygone era.
There was a time, not that many years ago, that if you told friends you’d been to Ensenada, Mexico, the first question they were likely to ask you was: “Did you go to Hussong’s?”
If your answer was “no,” you might never hear the end of it, and for good reason. Hussong’s was Ensenada and Ensenada was Hussong’s.
And after 122 years, it still is.
Winemaking, commercial fishing and tourism — especially cruise tourism nowadays — may form the city’s economic heart, but you could argue with some conviction that its soul lives inside these four wood-paneled walls.
If you were a turista from another part of the country looking to visit Ensenada, Hussong’s was often the first place on your list.
If you were a teenager just across the border in the United States, looking for your first legal taste of alcohol (the legal drinking age in Mexico is 18), it might’ve been the only place on your list.
Indeed, from San Diego to San Francisco and beyond, you can find endless numbers of ex-teens and 20somethings who can recount for you in proud, vivid detail that first journey to Hussong’s.
Even if they are a little fuzzy about the drive back.
(This is where I get to remind you that Hussong’s wants you to drink responsibly. They really would like to see you come back more than once.)
The cantina that started as a stagecoach stop in 1892 still looks a bit like one on the outside, and the Hussong family, which still owns it after a century and change, is fine with that.
This place puts the old in “Old Mexico,” proudly and with no regrets. Ensenada may be a fishing port, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the town basically grew up around the cantina.
In its earliest days, you could get a beer here for a nickel. The really big spenders went all-in for a shot of whiskey — one dime. The prices have definitely gone up a bit since, but the same no-nonsense approach applies.
But this isn’t just some dive joint where gringos go for the novelty of getting hammered in a foreign country. Back during Prohibition and for decades thereafter, Hussong’s was a hangout for some of the most glamorous faces in Hollywood.
Their faces, along with those of Mexican singers and movie stars, still line the walls in framed sketches.
We’re talking Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby and one future US president, Ronald Reagan.
But celebrities aren’t the only history you’ll find here.
Back in October 1941, legend has it that a Hussong’s bartender named Don Carlos Orozco started playing around with a few ingredients — tequila, lime and a herb liqueur from Baja California called Damiana — pouring the concoction into a salt-rimmed glass.
He liked the result, so he gave it a name.
Some say he took the name from daughter of the German ambassador to Mexico, said to have been a frequent visitor to the cantina. Others say he claimed it for actress Rita Hayworth, whose real first name was the same as that of the German ambassador’s daughter.
Which would make Hussong’s the birthplace of the margarita.
The Damiana has since been replaced by Cointreau and other libations, but the basic formula otherwise remains the same.
There’s nothing frilly, upscale or “hipster” about Hussong’s. This place is a straight old-school cantina, right down to the sawdust on the floor.
By night, Hussong’s really comes alive, mainly with locals.
A guy with a Polaroid camera that may be older than your father makes his way between the tables, offering to sell you a souvenir pic of yourself.
For a few dollars, mariachis will play you a song, loud enough to be heard by every drunk and semi-drunken reveler in the place. They range from guitar-strumming soloists to real-deal bands, complete with over-sized bass and blaring trumpets, classic, skin-tight mariachi pants and wrap-around sunshades.
And their musical range is nothing if not remarkable. Try to imagine a classic Mexican mariachi band switching with scarcely a pause from “Sabor a Mi” to Pink Floyd.
“We don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control…”
Clearly, you don’t have to be drunk to have your mind blown in this place.
Except for a few coats of paint and a daily change of sawdust, Hussong’s pretty much remains as it was the day it opened in 1892, in the same building.
Today, it struggles to be heard over bigger, louder, flashier and more strategically located places like Papas & Beer, especially during the days when the cruise ships come in.
But it’s still going, still a must for locals and norteamericano visitors alike who share a respect for Hussong’s history and its reputation for restrained rowdiness.
For those who get nervous at the idea of crossing the border these days, the family has a new Hussong’s in Las Vegas and Reno, but if you want to “keep it real,” you owe it to yourself to experience the original.
IF YOU GO
Ave. Ruiz 113, Zona Centro
If you arrive by cruise ship, Hussong’s is roughly a 15-minute walk from the cruise terminal or a very short taxi ride. If a shuttle bus picks you up from the dock, ask how close they can get you to Hussong’s. They might get you within a block or so.
Presuming you take the Rosarito-Ensenada toll highway once you cross the border in Mexico, the drive time from San Diego to Ensenada is about two and a half hours. The toll road turns into Bulevard Lazaro Cardenas as you make the big right turn to enter the city.
After the bend, drive one block to Macheros and turn left. Go one block to Ave. Lopez Mateos and turn left. Go three blocks to Avenida Ruiz and turn right.
Hussong’s will be in the middle of the block on your left. Parking is on the street, or wherever you can find it.