Ensenada is the third largest city in the Mexican state of Baja California. The coastal city is home to 522,768 people as of 2018. Ensenada has a bustling port that accommodates a large volume of cruise passengers, in addition to commercial fishing and shipping. Ensenada also famously claims to have invented the margarita. On a recent port of call in Ensenada, I had the opportunity to visit both bars who claim the margarita: Bar Andaluz and Hussong’s Cantina. In this article I will give an overview of each bar, detailing their histories and claims to the margarita, along with my review of their signature drink.
Bar Andaluz – Historical Site and Cultural Landmark
Bar Andaluz from the outside does not resemble either a bar or a restaurant. Bar Andaluz is tucked neatly inside of the Centro Social Cívico y Cultural Riviera de Ensenada, in English commonly referred to as the Riviera of Ensenada, or the Riviera Cultural Center. A community and cultural center today, the building grounds have an important historical significance for Ensenada. Before talking about the bar today it’s useful to look back on the building’s history.
The origins of the complex go all the way back to 1924 when an investment group called the Ensenada Beach Club, S.A. was formed. At the time Baja California proved very attractive to American investors, who looked favorably on Mexico’s liberal views on alcohol and gambling. During the peak years of Prohibition Ensenada must have seemed like a paradise for many Americans: plentiful alcohol and gambling, beautiful weather and sports fishing, just a short distance from California. The investment group later dissolved, but the work of construction and financing was turned over to other entities.
In 1928 professional boxer Jack Dempsey became the public face of advertising for the future hotel and casino, and construction began on the Playa Ensenada. The luxury hotel was completed in 1930 and even featured Bing Crosby as its featured act. The Playa Ensenada hotel and casino attracted many famous Hollywood stars of the time, including Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, among others.
The Great Depression struck in 1930, however, which wiped out many wealthy Americans and limited the resort’s growth. When Prohibition ended in 1933 the resort lost more of its luster, as it was no longer necessary for Americans to travel to Mexico for alcohol. Finally, in 1935 Mexico outlawed casino gambling under the directive of President Lázaro Cárdenas. Without gambling and alcohol revenue, the Playa Ensenada was understandably unable to turn a profit, and the hotel shuttered its doors in 1938.
The complex went unoccupied for several years, with some use by the country’s military in 1941. In 1942 the resort re-opened under the name Hotel Riviera del Pacífico. The hotel had its first closure in 1948. Although there were attempts to re-open the property over the years, the hotel was never a success. In the 1960’s there was even a period when Jack Dempsey’s villa was plundered and the site was occupied by squatters.
In 1978 the Mexican Federal Government began reconstruction of the grounds, an effort that was continued by the Baja California government. Today, the Riviera of Ensenada is an important cultural hub for the city of Ensenada. The Center has been used for national and international conventions. Locals rent out the facilities for wedding and parties and other special occasions. There are many community events hosted at the site, including art and music festivals, folkloric dancing, and more.
Bar Andaluz and the Margarita
The history of Bar Andaluz and its claim for the margarita date back to 1948, the same year that the Hotel Riviera del Pacífico initially closed. According to lore the drink was invented by bartender David Negrete in honor of Marjorie “Margarita” King Plant, a divorced former actress who had been previously married to New York sportsman Phil Plant. King Plant had been given the hotel as a gift by playboy Jerome D. Utley, a Detroit contractor and builder and former professional baseball player.
As a woman King Plant was unable to take ownership of the hotel, due to Mexican law at the time. She married a Mexican lawyer, Alfonso Rocha Espinosa, in order to navigate this legal issue. Although the marriage was intended to be strictly for legal reasons, Utley grew jealous and sued King Plant for ownership. Utley lost the lawsuit, but King Plant had already grown tired of the enterprise. She divorced Alfonso Rocha and sold him the property.
I arrived to Bar Andaluz at the opening time of 10:00 am on a Wednesday. I ordered the frozen margarita. The bartender ceremoniously dipped the large margarita glass upside down into a plate of freshly ground salt, then poured a fresh batch of margarita directly from the blender. Taste-wise I would say this margarita is similar to what you would receive in a nice Mexican restaurant in the United States: flavorful and refreshing with not as much of a tequila bite. A perfect drink for sipping and enjoying in the bar’s sunny courtyard.
The ice was not as thoroughly blended, which made the drink last longer in the sun and which gave a nice consistency while drinking. I followed the margarita with a bottled beer, as the bar does not serve draft beer, like many bars in Ensenada. Although we had the bar to ourselves for a few minutes one of the ship tours arrived shortly after. Bar Andaluz is surely a popular destination among tourists, and due to its close proximity to the cruise pier I am sure it receives plenty of traffic.
Hussong’s Cantina – A Wild West Cowboy Bar
The competition with Bar Andaluz is of course Hussong’s Cantina, the oldest and most well-known cantina in Baja California. Hussong’s was the second bar ever registered in Ensenada, and the bar still occupies its original location along Avenida Ruiz. Very little has changed over the years, and the bar is famous for its raucous party atmosphere, often accompanied by norteño music. Hussong’s feels like a Wild West cowboy bar that has nonetheless managed to strike a balance between tourist attraction and local watering hole.
Hussong’s Cantina was built in 1892 by founder Johann (John/Juan) Hussong, a German immigrant. Johann had arrived into town in 1889 on a steamship, leaving behind his girlfriend Louise in Germany. Like many other young men, he had been lured by tales of a “gold rush” in “lower California”, with plots being sold approximately 60 miles southeast of what is modern-day Ensenada.
When Johann arrived to the assay office to apply for a plot of land he found that the “gold fever” was largely a product of pure hype, some combination of yellow journalism and irresponsible marketing. But Johann was determined. He changed his name to the Anglicized “John” and then built a name for himself as a supplier for the Baja coast. For example, he hunted fowl and then sold the meat to local restaurants.
In 1890 John began running a six-horse carriage service between Ensenada and the surrounding gold rush camps. One one fateful day the carriage flipped and his companion, Newt House, broke his leg. At the time, there simply was no hospital in the area. Newt was put up in a cantina owned by J.J. Meiggs, the only drinking establishment in town, to allow time to heal.
According to legend, Meiggs then attempted to attack his wife with an axe and went to jail. John Hussong took over management of the Meiggs Cantina for a year, at which time he bought the property from Meiggs upon his release from jail. Meiggs left to find his wife, reportedly, and he was never heard from again. With more stability in his life, John Hussong (who now went by Juan) finally sent for his girlfriend Louise and the pair married.
Meiggs Cantina was at that time located at the address that Papas & Beer later took over, before Papas & Beer moved to its present location. Reportedly, the neighbors grew tired of the incessant clatter at Meiggs Cantina, so Juan bought the property across the street, a Southern Lane stagecoach stop.
With a new name, Hussong’s Cantina, and new location, Juan was set up for success and the rest is history. In 1892 Juan purchased his liquor license, #002, just to make things official. At the time of opening, beer was sold for a nickel, whiskey for a dime. At the age of just 29, Juan Hussong became the owner of what would become the oldest and most famous bar in Baja, California.
Hussong’s and the Margarita
Hussong’s claim to the margarita dates to October 1941 at which time it is said that bartender Don Carlos Orozco invented the drink. Orozco served the drink to Margarita Henkel Cesena, allegedly the daughter of a German ambassador, who loved it so much he named the drink for her. At least that is one tale about the cocktail’s origins.
After a morning of walking and stopping at various bars and restaurants along the way, we walked into Hussong’s at about 3 p.m. The Hussong margarita is very different from that of Bar Andaluz. Hussong’s serves its margaritas in short cocktail glasses, either frozen or on the rocks. The locals tend to prefer frozen from what I have been told, and that is considered the original preparation.
Frozen cocktails actually date back to the invention of the modern blender in 1922 and the popularization of frozen daiquiries in Cuba in the 1920s. For a look back at the history of frozen cocktails, see this link. But whether frozen or on the rocks, Hussong’s margaritas pack a heavyweight punch. The cantina also serves bottled beer at a reasonable price, including local brands which can be quite inexpensive.
Interestingly, the original Hussong margarita likely used Damiana liqueur, named for the herb of the same name. The use of Damiana dates back to the time of the Guaycura indigenous tribes who inhabited Baja California Sur. Damiana is said to have digestive and relaxation properties, and it is today widely used in regional cuisine. Today, Damiana liqueur has been replaced by the Mexican spirit Controy in Mexico. In other parts of the world Controy is often substituted with Cointreau or with Grand Marnier.
Who Won The Margarita Challenge, and Other Margarita Claims
Although it’s difficult to say, I would say I enjoyed the Hussong margarita the most. The smaller serving size made it easier to drink, and I enjoyed the Wild West aesthetic of Hussong’s. But it wasn’t an entirely fair comparison since we went to Bar Andaluz as they just opening for the day. Ultimately, you cannot go wrong with either Hussong’s or Bar Andaluz, so why not choose both?
It should be noted that although most tend to agree that Ensenada is the birthplace of the margarita, there are a number of other claims throughout Mexico and even the United States. For an overview of other margarita birthplace theories, please see here. One popular theory has it that Carlos “Danny” Herrera invented the margarita at Rancho La Gloria, an inn located on the old road connecting Tijuana and Rosarito Beach. The theory has some overlap with the Bar Andaluz claim, except in this version Margorie King Plant was staying in San Diego while negotiating the purchase of Hotel Riviera del Pacifico. King Plant would travel to Ensenada each day, and while en route she would stop at Rancho La Gloria.
In this claim King Plant is said to have an allergic reaction to all hard liquor except for tequila, thus prompting Herrera to create the cocktail. The Los Angeles Times posted a number of articles proclaiming Herrera as the undisputed inventor of the margarita, for example see here, here and here. However, the integrity of these claims have since been put in question. Please see here for a detailed rebuttal to the Danny Herrera claims.
Below is a partial list of references that I used while creating this article:
- The Hotel Riviera Del Pacífico by Maria Eugenia Bonifaz de Novelo. The Journal of San Diego History. Spring 1983, Volume 29, Number 2. (Bar Andaluz).
- Jack Dempsey’s Hotel in Baja California: The Playa Ensenada from San Diego History Center. (Bar Andaluz).
- Jack Dempsey’s Ensenada Casino by Greg Niemann / Baja Bound. (Bar Andaluz).
- Inside the Historic Riviera Hotel by Martina / Baja Bound. (Bar Andaluz).
- Oldest Bar in Baja, Hussong’s Cantina by Martina / Baja Bound. (Hussong’s Cantina).
- Hussong’s Cantina In Ensenada – Home of the Margarita by BajaInsider.com. (Hussong’s Cantina).
- The Margaritaville of the Baja by Marian Cromley / Washington Post. (Hussong’s Cantina).
- The Mystery of the Margarita Cocktail Plus Recipe by Alexa Meisler / 52 Perfect Days. (other margarita claims).
- Margarita Memories From Baja : Recollections: During its glory years in the 1940s, Rancho La Gloria owner Danny Herrera came up with a blend that is still popular. by Syd Love / L.A. Times. (Danny Herrera margarita claim).
- Carlos Herrera, 90; Restaurant Owner Invented the Margarita by L.A. Times. (Danny Herrera margarita claim).
- Marjorie King; Possible Eponym of the Margarita Cocktail by L.A Times. (Danny Herrera margarita claim).
- The L.A. Times gets soused on its own margarita hoax by Margot Sheehan / San Diego Reader. (Danny Herrera margarita claim).
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