¡Sabor!

Mingling with the hoochie mamas, heavy dudes, and drag señoritas

The thing about a San Francisco Fourth of July -- or July in general -- is that it's often too chilly to feel like summer. One alternative: Mission Street's Club Malibu, which is so hot it could make a naked man sweat. Inside, a kindly waitress offers a table near the dance floor, returning shortly thereafter with a pair of salt-rimmed margaritas. The air throbs with heat, and if you throw in the disco ball, smoke machine, lasers, strobe lights, and bass-heavy Latin house music with Jamaican-style vocals and percussion as addictive as Indian bhangra, you've got a wild scene, to say the least.

On the dance floor, Central American hoochie mamas in chunky-heeled boots get their groove on with swarthy, well-dressed, mustachioed dudes. A live band takes over, belting out a more rustic style of tunage that combines steady, hop-along beats with mambo-esque horns and a wailing, throaty chorus.

"It's Colombian," says Juan, from Mexico. "This is cumbia." Within seconds, the dance floor is packed with couples, who mop the sweat from their brows every few minutes, and as often as not don't speak a word of English.

"The most people, they from El Salvador," Juan says, and the next person we meet proves him correct. "My country is Salvador," says José, adding with some enthusiasm that Malibu draws an international crowd: "Mexicans, Salvadorians, Guatemala, Panama -- evvvvrrrryyyyywhere!"

Have we mentioned that Malibu can get toasty? The temperature is a bit lower at Ay Caramba, a club down the street, but the crowd there is so dense that if everyone inside inhaled simultaneously, the collective chest expansion might burst the building like a balloon. Farther down Mission is Roccapulco, where a vast, immaculately polished hardwood dance floor allows elegantly dressed couples to move so gracefully they could merengue across a bed of superfine sugar without leaving so much as a ruffle. Everything seems bathed in red light, but for most people it's all about the sound.

"Can you hear that rhythm?" asks a second Juan, who's originally from Honduras but grew up in the city. "You can't find that anywhere else."

Tom seems to agree. "I've been dancing salsa in San Francisco for five years, and Tito García [who, along with his Orquesta Internacional, is responsible for the rhythm mentioned above] is the best Latin jazz band in Northern California." Tom grew up listening to salsa. "I just think it's the coolest thing in the world." Groovy, but is it a good way to meet the babes? "It's a verygood way to meet babes," he says, disappearing, presumably to do just that.

Meanwhile, a different kind of señorita -- quite a few of them, in fact -- rules the tiny stage at Esta Noche, 16th Street's legendary Latino gay/transgender bar. Many are as tall as Amazons, with eyes framed by dark makeup, lips swabbed elaborately, and (in one case) breasts so taut a bra would use themfor support. Most of the patrons are Hispanic, but not all. "On my night off, this is just about the only place I go," says Dane, a bartender at the Stud. "I love the salsa, and I love the [meaningful voice drop] Latin men." He's certainly not alone in his preference, but white boys can also get play.

"The guy in the black shirt wants to meet you," grins a gentleman matchmaker.

Much appreciated, but unfortunately we're out of time this week.

 
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