Hooters Has Nothing on Chile’s Sexy Coffee Shops

R&K Breakfast Photo - Café Alibaba
Sadly photography is forbidden within Café Alibaba – a café con piernas, or literally ‘coffee with legs’ – so you’ll have to allow the blackened windows and heeled half-women to inspire the imagination.

Life has a funny way of working out. One day you’re befriending a large group of Chileans at a boutique kitesurfing resort in northern Peru, and the next you’re standing in a dingy hole-in-the-wall with them, deep in Santiago’s underbelly, being caressed softly by the scantily-clad server delivering the worst espresso you’ve ever tasted. But then again, one doesn’t go to a café con piernas (literally, ‘coffee with legs’) for the crema.

23519381_10155961962657320_8059388938042164571_nTo be fair, my friends didn’t want to bring me here; in fact leading their visiting American friend to the seedy dives on her only day in their city made them highly uncomfortable. But I had requested a coffee and in return – half-jokingly – was asked: a normal coffee or an illegal one? Once I found out that these cafés con piernas not only existed, but thrived in – and only in – Santiago, there was no way we were not delving in to see what all the fuss was about. A little bit of grit in South America’s most conservative capital? Sí, porfa.

So a special shoutout goes to Rodrigo and Jorge, who against their best judgement, helped me discover the highly ridiculous but somehow totally logical strip club meets coffee shop during my 24 hours in the Chilean capital. These are the discoveries worth traveling for. The completo hot dogs found everywhere there, that absolutely drown in pools of mayonesa y aguacate, don’t hurt either.

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This story was published here in Roads & Kingdoms; one of my favorite sites for alternative travel stories from around the globe – of which the late and great Anthony Bourdain was a primary sponsor and Editor at Large.

WE COULD HAVE TOLD YOU PEOPLE DON’T GO THERE FOR THE COFFEE

It was 11 a.m. when the pounding in my head seemed to sync with the thumping techno and strobe lights illuminating an otherwise dark room. I had a flashback of the previous night’s dance club until a server, who delivered my piping hot espresso in a blacklight-activated thong and soaring platform boots, snapped me back to reality.

We were in Café Alibaba, a café con piernas—or “coffee with legs,” a Chilean institution where revealingly dressed waitresses serve cortados in establishments ranging from classy to clandestine, wearing skin-tight miniskirts or scandalous lingerie. (They don’t serve alcohol.) These joints, as prevalent as Starbucks in other cities, may seem at odds with Chile’s reputation as one of Latin America’s most socially conservative countries, but then again, perhaps they make perfect sense for that reason.

I had just 24 hours to explore the city and my two local hosts, Rodrigo and Jorge, had promised a whirlwind tour. That morning, after an obligatory stroll by the impressive Palacio de La Moneda and a breakfast of the city’s ubiquitous completo hot dogs, piled high with smashed avocado and swimming in pools of mayonnaise, I begged for caffeine to help me recover from the night before.

Rodrigo suggested heading to a café con piernas. Café Caribe, around the corner from us, was one of the more upscale options. I lingered at the brightly lit bar watching women in thigh-baring uniforms sling caffeinated beverages to a predominantly male clientele. Intrigued, I suggested we head somewhere less upmarket. Five minutes later, we escaped the weekday hustle of downtown Santiago and beelined for the tinted windows of Café Alibaba.

The original, and more wholesome, cafés con piernas date back to the 1960s. The story goes that servers in short skirts were meant to attract customers into the new Italian-style espresso shops springing up in downtown Santiago, in a country fond of instant coffee. It wasn’t until after Chile’s military dictatorship ended in 1990 that the tinted windows and skimpier clothing appeared. Café Barón Rojo, which opened in 1994, is credited with setting the standard for the more risqué versions. (It closed down in 2005.)

Inside Café Alibaba, black walls danced with neon lights like an adults-only laser tag arena. I shouted my order over the raging dance music before settling into the last free nook in a cramped room.

Servers strutted about in barely-there bikinis and heels so high my feet ached at the sight of them. The place resembled a daytime strip club, but with caffeine instead of cocktails, and flirting rather than dancing. I surveyed the businessmen on coffee breaks, and wondered aloud if they weren’t nervous about being caught here during work hours. The server who brought me my coffee laughed, and told me the men were likely to run into their bosses inside one.

I took a sip of my espresso, and immediately spit it out. But people probably don’t come here for the coffee.

Café Alibaba (Local 151)
Galería Santiago Centro
Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins 949, Santiago, Chile
9 a.m. – 9 p.m.

On a side note: I received a comment when this came out about how sad it is that commercializing women’s bodies is such a lucrative industry. While I wouldn’t argue this statement generally speaking, when it comes to café con piernas culture,the issue a bit more complex. When speaking candidly with my server in the café, and through various interviews I have read, the jobs appear to be highly-coveted – opening up job opportunities where women make a healthy income on a more or less regular daytime schedule, and without the less desirable effects of working in a strip club; they do not remove their clothes entirely and there are strict rules in place about touching and propositioning the servers beyond their duties of delivering caffeine with a side of light flirtation. Just some café for thought.

 

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Playing Rat Roulette With Street Meat in Laos

This story was published on The Huffington Post today. Here it is on Boys Eats World, complete with photos.

I have always been an adventurous eater. From skewered bull penis in Beijing to beating snake heart in Hanoi to ant larvae tacos in Mexico City, I am a curious omnivore who is willing to try anything once. It took a village in the rural mountains of Laos, however, to truly test my gastronomic fortitude.

During my three weeks traversing the country, street meat stalls became a comforting constant in my ever-changing surroundings. There is no better way to slip into the leisurely Lao pace of life than by noshing on succulent pork ribs, marinated chicken thighs, and unidentifiable meaty bits while crouched on plastic stools with the locals. I felt a sense of camraderie with my neighbors who smiled approvingly when I mopped the juices from around my mouth with sticky rice, before eating it too. In these inclusive roadside eateries, language barriers are trumped by a universal appreciation of grilled meats and no one questions whether it is too early for your first Beerlao of the day. It was here, among the street meaters, where I belonged.
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That feeling of solidarity with my tribe was shaken to its core one foggy morning on my routine breakfast pilgrimage to the stalls clustered in Nong Khiaw’s center. Approaching the squatted grill master with a smile, I stopped dead in my tracks. A knotted pink tail was swinging between her legs as she vigorously removed the rat’s coat in swift, deliberate strokes of the blade. Drops of blood pooled at her feet as she expertly sliced up the rodent and tossed it onto the grill alongside the other meats. My stomach lurched and a feeling of acute nausea spread through my entire body as I made the connection between these carriers of disease and my daily dining ritual. My mind reeling, I beelined for the neighboring produce stand and began to chain-eat oranges instead. My unshakeable relationship with street meat had just become complicated.

The near certainty of having unwittingly eaten rat disturbed me deeply; its hidden presence within the humble cuisine I had come to love was an assault on my psyche. Had I found my culinary kryptonite in the filthy dwellers of subway systems and dark alleys the world over?
As I pondered my conundrum, the valuable lessons and genuine relationships formed through my Laotian street encounters came flooding back.
When I first arrived in the unfamiliar southern city of Pakse, weak and disoriented after a nine-turned-fourteen hour bus ride from Bangkok, I found nourishment in streetside lemongrass and ginger-infused pork sausages and a kindred spirit in the amiable local hand-stuffing each one with pride.
During a three-day motorbike trip through the elevated Bolaven Plateau — a region ripe with Arabica coffee, picturesque waterfalls, and streetside grill huts galore — I cured my hunger on the road with crisped pork belly and tender balls of mystery meat. In one smoky den a gracious griller taught me proper sticky rice etiquette by urging me to rip off a hunk of the dense starch from a communal basket and wrap it around my meat before dunking it in a slew of fermented pastes and chili-spiked vinegars. Days later, hovering over a heaping plate of road snacks, I was invited to join a table of students at an underground karaoke club where being publicly serenaded was made tolerable, and then hilarious, by hosts who never let my cup run dry.

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img_2449As the sun sank lazily behind Nong Khiaw’s dramatic karst cliffs that evening, my initial disgust was replaced with the realization that street meat — rat likely included — had been at the heart of my most meaningful memories in Laos, prompting me to question my bias against the rodent itself.

If I’d been aware of the possibility that its flesh was simmering within my sausages, would I have enjoyed them with such unadulterated joy? Would I have made the same connections with locals who found amusement in my undiscerning enthusiasm to try everything on offer? Perhaps most importantly, could I really fathom giving up street meat in a country where it had become an all-encompassing lifestyle?

The following week, after enjoying the final sunrise of my trip in the former royal capital of Luang Prabang, I strolled through the morning market where ingredients were sold for the day’s cooking. I wandered past stalls of live frogs bound together at the feet, slithering snakes in bowls, and baskets piled high with dried scorpions. It wasn’t long before I spotted the rats. They had been butterflied, leaving their charred innards exposed, and I picked one up to examine the creature that had triggered my internal dilemma. Its tiny bones and sparse pockets of meat did little for my appetite, but it no longer revolted me, either. Strangely enough, I felt a kind of gratitude to the rodents that had taught me that my desire for authentic feasting experiences was far stronger than my fear of vermin.img_1143

Burmese Curries & Monastery ‘Monk’eys: What’s Hpaan-ing in Hpa-an, Myanmar

Weaving through throngs of oncoming traffic and a cacophony of horns – my mouth tingling from the perfectly balanced spicy noodle soup I just finished slurping – I dare to unwrap my grasp around Nick’s torso only long enough to wave back to the beaming children greeting us from their homes on the river’s edge.  Our motorbike jolts forward as we finally break free from the bustling center of Hpa-an, where the chaos melts away into lush, idyllic countryside punctured with dramatic limestone cliffs that stretch to the sky in all directions.  I have dreamed of visiting Myanmar ever since its doors opened to tourism in 2012, and the capital of the Kayin state proves to be the ideal introduction to a country that has long captured my imagination.

Myanmar – or Burma, depending on who you ask – is a country that begs to be explored.  After decades of isolation from the outside world, much of the country is now accessible to anybody with a tourist visa and a sense of adventure.  With several years of tourism under their belt, it may no longer be the virgin land void of foreigners, ATMs and WiFi connections that it once was (although these luxuries are never a guarantee). It is, however, a fascinating destination with a complicated history, a myriad of over one hundred ethnic minorities and cultures, and a varied cuisine that weaves flavors and techniques from neighboring countries into a culinary identity all its own.  In a land whose majestic temple-strewn landscape is nothing short of spectacular, it is the locals’ infectiously warm spirit that leaves the greatest impression.  Being invited for a beer or passed a plate of spicy ginger salad by your neighbor at a street stall – simply because it is delicious and you really must try it – is normal.  They are, of course, correct – and will nod with approval as you order one of your own.

As an explorer of Myanmar, the more you put into understanding and experiencing what makes it unique – and delicious – the deeper your connection will be.  For those looking to delve into its culinary landscape, sampling an array of richly spiced Burmese curries is an admirable way to start.  Accompanied by the pack of fellow nomads that I met at the bus station, I arrive at the Burmese curry house San Ma Tau ravenous – peeking inside each simmering pot and lingering in the medley of warm and sharply pungent aromas, before concluding that we would like to try them all.  As we hydrate with ice-cold Myanmar lager, the small bowls of curries bathing in their own oily juices begin to hit the table in waves until nothing can be seen but pickled quail eggs, tender braised duck and roasted chicken that glows a neon shade of turmeric.  The never ending – and often unidentified – condiments that accompany most meals range from fermented tea leaves (a national favorite) to umami rich bean pastes to cilantro spiked ground chilis, turning each feast into a ‘choose your own flavor’ adventure.  The crunchy local eggplant and fresh herbs at the table’s center act as a palate cleanser amidst the waves of spice.

It goes without saying that a true culinary exploration of Myanmar requires hitting the streets.  Those willing to forego the formalities of restaurant service are rewarded by markets teeming with vendors that sling local delicacies like spicy shan noodles, deep fried samosas and sticky sweet pastries all day long. In the dusty street markets of Hpa-an, we indulged in the light-as-air chickpea crepes drizzled in sweet chili sauce for breakfast, while noodle-stuffed egg rolls and sweet corn fritters deep-fried in a roadside wok and dunked in a tangy ginger-cilantro sauce killed our afternoon munchies.  The wok master exuded a disposition so jolly it was easy to pass an hour crouched at her table snacking, laughing and playing with the groups of giggling children who came to join in on the fun.

Once properly fueled, we took to the countryside and explored the ancient Buddhist cave temples for which the region is known.  Dating back to the seventh century, exploring the spectacular time capsules decorated with giant Buddhas, chattering bats and dripping stalactites, induces a Planet Earth meets Alice in Wonderland sensation, while the monks and praying locals remind you of the caves’ inherent holiness.  Cruising to the aptly name “Bat Cave” at the town’s edge for sunset grants the opportunity to see hundreds of thousands of bats flock from a small hole in the cliff’s side to begin their nocturnal feasting.

Having heard rumor of a (half) mile-high monastery, we made the grueling two hour vertical pilgrimage up the side of Mount Zwegabin to feast and sleep atop the highest limestone cliff in the region.  The less than luxurious accommodations (read: mat on floor) was more than made up for by the epic panoramic sunset that made us question whether this was all a dream after all.  Our jellied legs that propelled us to the top, however, acted as an earthly reminder that we had earned the right to sleep amongst the monks and clouds.  The modest yet delightful vegetarian feast served soon after sundown lulled us to sleep (along with the aid of Myanmar’s prize ‘High Class’ whiskey) – while the 4 am prayer call woke us back up in time to watch the ascending sun paint the sky with fiery watercolors.

My renewed sense of peace was cut short by the grabby monastery monkeys, who snatched and annihilated my bag of peanuts as I pondered my place in the universe.  An anger arose within me but was quickly washed away by a Buddha quote that came to mind:

In the end, only three things matter:
how much you loved,
how gently you lived,
and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

Perhaps these peanuts just weren’t meant to be; and besides, if Myanmar has taught me anything, it’s that unexpected adventures – and snacks – are just a mere cliff, cave or mountain’s climb away.