We rounded out a long weekend with lunch at one of my favorite spots along Connecticut I-95 corridor: Bodega. In Yucatán, a bodega is storage space. Among Latinos up north, a bodega is a corner shop. But in upscale, preppy Fairfield, Bodega is a trendy taco bar. Thing is, the food’s amazing. We put on our salmon-colored pants, turned up our Izod collars, and blended in the best we could. I let Paul call me “Biff.”
Somewhere between my arepa stuffed with succulent braised short ribs, peppers, onion and horseradish chipotle crema and my taco salad topped with crispy Korean chicken, red pepper paste and asian slaw, I blurted out something that just hit me. “This is the future of the Centro. By the time we’re there full time, there will be places like this everywhere.”
Paul replied, saying those two little words that always make my heart flutter. ”You’re right.”
I’ve detected creeping hipsterism in the Centro. The Mayan Pub was a lot jazzier than I expected. I mean, literally. There was a band playing jazz. Young guys with skinny jeans and pork pie hats and girls in little dresses emulated the Williamsburg scene. Then came La Fundación, a mezcalería serving cocktails in Ball jars under the glow of a disco ball in the Santa Lucia area. I notice how well they imported hipster irony into their marketing. Actually, their promos are beautifully done. They’re clever, appealing and eye-catching. You could mount an art exhibit from their promos. Even the one for their Twerk This Way night. Yes, even that one. Did you even think you’d see that in El Centro?
The same owners then opened La Negrita in an old corner cantina on Calle 62. I had never even set foot in a cantina. Some are down-and-out watering holes for hombres only, while others are more upbeat and inclusive. This one clearly welcomes everyone and has an extensive menu, upholds the tradition of botanas with your drinks, and even offers Yucatecan microbrews. We went there with friends, and I had the Chicken Tinga. (Paul swears I slipped up and ordered Pinga de Pollo, but I think he’s hearing things.) Anyway, it was outrageously good, and our companions agreed the food was really good. The young, skinny-jeans waiter with the (I assume) ironic handlebar mustache could have been out of central casting to play Brooklyn hipster. It was deliberately hip, but also strong on hospitality and quality.
One night, we were walking back to our guesthouse on Calle 66 when we passed El Estado Seco, a cantina that appears a little more traditional. Music was blaring and people were clearly celebrating. I glanced past the saloon doors and saw a bunch of tables pushed together to accommodate a dozen or so college-age customers, men and women. Even unhispsterfied cantinas appear to have a youth appeal, just as unadulterated dive bars back home do. I found their Facebook page (yes, today’s cantinas often have Facebook pages) and found they seem to be cultivating a younger crowd.
Maybe this isn’t so remarkable. Maybe it just conflicts with those romantic myths that we like to spread: The Centro is like something out of the 1940s, a sweet innocence, quaint, lost in time, bla bla bla. I remember being surprised to see a teenager walking with his head buried in his smartphone. Then, of course, I was shown the Prada and Upscale Baby boutiques a few miles up the Paseo. I see Tejon Rojo is still bringing modern, surprising and expressive fashion to the Centro as well.
Centro is no longer stuck in a time warp. Cappuccino and thin-crust pizza have arrived. Will it dawn on young, hip Meridanos, while kicking back a mezcal under the disco ball, that there’s potential in those old ruins to settle down and raise a family? Didn’t that happen when those yuppies, dissatisfied with their split-level in Teaneck, found undervalued lofts on Broome Street way back when?