On a dirty street in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a few thousand feet from the Pacific Ocean, a bar's sign offers a warning so ominous, it's downright appealing: SE PROHIBE, it begins, entrar de menores de edad, actos de prostitucion o degradaccion.
No minors. No prostitution. And, definitely, no degradation. Any bar that must warn patrons against buying bathroom blow-jobs is A-OK in my book. So I enter La Ballena Azul, quite possibly one of the finest dives in Puerto Vallarta.
This is a backhanded compliment. Puerto Vallarta, where I recently found myself with my girlfriend, Adrianne, boasts 340 days of annual sun, sandy beaches and more tackiness than maple syrup. Here, 40-something men chug liters of margaritas while leather-skinned women wear dental floss as a fashion statement. It's a beautiful town filled with ugly people. It's best exemplified by cheese-ball club Señor Frog's, where tequila is a food group and table-dancing is a sport.
My issue with Señor Frog's and similar schlocky bars is that they're peddling amateur debauchery. Here, the bars say, you'll get as sloppy as a 17-year-old on prom night. And maybe even sleep with one. Real drunks don't drink at Señor Frog's. They're at La Ballena Azul.
Roughly translated, the name means the blue whale, which is just about the size of this half-enclosed beer garden. A 15-foot tree reaches for the sky, while sun-creased men with cowboy hats sit at tables covered in pastel checkered tablecloths. Like any good dive, the decorating scheme is Spartan, slapdash and half-assed. Paintings of dolphins and blue-whales decorate the walls, while a single TV plays a subtitled Kevin Spacey movie. The scene is glued together by deafening ranchero songs that heavily mention amor.
A waitress with plum-colored hair stops singing along long enough to deposit a plate of salted peanuts on our table.
Dos Indios, por favor, I order in pidgin Spanish. The waitress nods, then saunters off. Though I can't carry on a Spanish conversation with a two-year-old, it's pleasing to know I retain enough vocabulary to get drunk.
Now, why'd I select Indio beer? It's a lesser evil. Mexico's suds options are limitedand flavorless. Corona is carbonated dishwater, as are Tecate and Sol. Estrella is watered-down Busch Light. This leaves only Dos Equis and Negro Modelo, as well as Pacifico and Indio pilsners. The latter two are my favorite, tasting like a cross between Pilsner Urquell and Brooklyn Pilsner. I prefer Pacifico. At La Ballena, however, a bottle costs 12 pesos (about $1.10), while Indios run nine pesos ($.80). A peso saved is an extra peso for drinking.
Our beers arrive with mouths wrapped in napkins. A plate of salt and limes appears beside them. Following Adrianne's lead, I sprinkle salt in my Indio. Zap! It's the missing ingredient, turning a workaday pilsner into a palate-pleasing dream. This concoction should cure me of salty-food cravings, but I'm addicted to the complementary peanuts. They're served wearing their skins, dressed in salt and lime juice. This creates a lip-puckering, savory-and-sour tang that beats the pants off pretzels.
We order another round. Adrianne lights a cigarette. Thankful for permissible smoking laws, I deposit two pesos ($.20) into what looks like a wall-hung condom machine. Instead, out rolls a single Marlboro Red. Genius! This device can solve the drunk's biggest problem. Think: It's post-2 a.m., and your cigarette pack is emptier than Paris Hilton's skull. Solution? The single-cigarette machine. Sadly, in Bloomberg's smoke-free NYC, this device is a pipe dream.
Like the cigarette dispenser, La Ballena's bathroom is oddly spectacular. Not so much for the urine trough, mind you, or the sign urging customers to rat out drug dealerswhich may explain why the toilets lack doorsbut the graphic adorning the bathroom's entrance: sharks, with anatomically correct genitalia, urinating. And grinning.
A smiling shark would aptly describe La Ballena Azul. At first blush, the bar is scarier than an Eisenhower-era Bowery dive. Solitary, working-class men glare at bargoers, only parting their lips to suck down beer. It's a bit off-putting, especially as my sub-par Spanish prevents me from picking up phrases like, you know, Let's kill the gringo and steal his girlfriend. However, La Ballena's danger only exists in my heada 100-peso note (about $10) buys a hangover's worth of beer. La Ballena is a refreshingly no-bullshit and no-frills bar where, if I were a lesser writer, I'd say you'd have a whale of a time.
La Bellana Azul
(betw. Insurgenetes & Constitucion)
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
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