If you want to drink with everyday folks from the tequila-producing region of Mexico, continue up the small hill that begins on Mission near Cortland. Here, in the neighborhood that could be known as the outer- Outer Mission or lower Bernal Heights, you'll find the Tip Top ("La Casa del Club Jalisco"), a sort of Spanish-speaking Cheers where everyone knows Gabriela la cantinera (Gabby the bartender) and the margaritas are made with fresh, wholesome lime juice -- exactly as God intended.
"I come here because I feel OK with these people," says Alex, a young Jaliscan sipping tequila as he waits for his turn on the pool table. "Everybody's trying to have fun -- no problems, no problems against nobody." He greets a friend with a hearty "¿Qué onda, cabrón?" ("What's up, you son of a bitch?"), then watches as Mickey, a local pool shark, shanks an eight-ball shot and raises his hands as if to say "Shit happens." The crowd numbers about a dozen, which makes for slow times. But that suits a hulking hombre named Arturo just fine.
"This bar is family bar," he says. "I come to relax. Here, it's very quiet." Arturo's a contractor, and offers his palm (which is as rough as sun-dried iguana skin) for a handshake to prove it. The interaction leaves him with an impression: "Your hands are smooth, like a lady."
Well Arturo, that's ... not what we wanted to hear. So let's cross the street to Calon's, the Studio 54 of the OOM/LBH area. The music is pumping, the heat is pleasantly subtropical, and the small dance floor is packed to capacity with limber-hipped couples who salsa with an enthusiasm that's probably illegal in many nations. Looking comfortable on a barstool with a cushioned back and armrests (talk about luxury), José claps his hands and wiggles his fingers as if playing the piano -- the international sign for "I'm feeling it."
"Only the best come to this bar!" enthuses a man who gives his name as "Engelbert Humperdinck." Ernesto and Sonia, a pair of first-timers, say they discovered Calon's after feasting on pupusas at La Santaneca next door.
"We just opened the door and it's like, a bunch of people dancing, no cover charge, and everyone's friendly," says Ernesto. "What more do you want?"
How about a decades-old dive, no larger than a studio apartment, where you can purchase mini Budweisers? That takes us to St. Mary's Pub, down the street, with a neon sign that's fading like the last gasp of sunset. Inside, the glowing red and green columns behind the bar are brighter, but not as bright as the electric yellow Martini Trucking jacket worn by a regular named Steve.
"You know, in a crowd he stands out," says Steve's friend Pam. "You can find him." There's no crowd here: Beyond the two of them, the clientele is limited to Robert, a local who has stopped off for an after-work cocktail. The night is so slow that just after midnight Jay the bartender begins closing up shop, explaining that St. Mary's is more of a daytime/early evening bar.
"By 12 o'clock," Jay says, "everybody's so wasted they go to Calon's."