Hussongs Cantina – Baja's Oldest Bar and the Verified Originator of the Margarita
Ever been to Hussongs in Ensenada? (map) Most Baja Aficionados have—at least once in our lives. It’s a rite of passage for Southern Californians who turn 18 and don’t want to wait another three years before bellying up to a bar. But Hussongs isn’t just a bar. It’s a landmark ... a legend ... a one-of-a-kind, not-to-be-missed experience. It has this certain mystique. It’s famous. People all over the world know about it. Its popularity has never waned in all these years. It’s also the place where the Margarita was invented—back in October, 1941 by bartender Don Carlos Orozco. He concocted the perfect mixture of equal parts tequila, Damiana (Controy is used now) and lime, served over ice in a salt-rimmed glass for Margarita Henkel, daughter of the German Ambassador to Mexico. Not too many people know that, but it’s the truth. Honest.
Hussongs hasn’t changed much in 108 years. Current owner, Ricardo Hussong, grandson of founder Juan, told me that the only changes he’s made to the building since taking it over in 1979 were to replace the
sheet metal ceiling and to add a new ice maker! He’s maintained the family tradition of serving consistently great drinks, using top quality liquor and charging reasonable prices. It’s laid back, friendly, casual and always tons of fun. The dark green interior, wooden floors covered in sawdust and funky art on the wall never change. Mariachis rotate in and out, just like they always have. A guy with a Polaroid cruises by, offering souvenir photos. Another comes in with an electrical box and two cylinders, offering to shock you for a fee. Whenever a song finishes, there’s a round of hooting, hollering and cheering..
Is it rowdy? In a comfortable, easy-going way that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It was way wilder in the ‘70s. Ricardo believes things have calmed down because, as he says (and he’s about my age), “We’re all growing up. The crowd is mellower now. The younger tourists go to Papas & Beer.
It used to be that we had about 85% Americans here. Now most of our customers are locals. Business people come in here for a drink before lunch. Men in their 20s and 30s meet their girlfriends and wives here on Friday nights. It’s steady.” I know. I’ve seen it. And on weekends the locals are always happy to share their tables with visiting Americans. At Hussongs, everyone is your friend.
So how did it all start, anyway? Is the name Hussongs really German? And, if so, how did a German end up owning the most popular bar in all of Baja? Well, here’s the scoop ...
Johann Hussong, the cantina’s founder, was born in Germany in 1863. When he was 23, he emigrated to New York, where he became John. After a year, he headed west to California. In 1889 the discovery of gold south of the border lured him to Ensenada. Back then, Ensenada was barely a blip on the radar screen. There were 1,337 people, three hotels, one bar, a pier, a few shops, a flour mill, a school, a stable and a wine cellar. There was a new telegraph and phone line between San Diego and Ensenada and a steamship line that operated between the two cities. The road between the two was pretty much impassible.
John hunted quail, geese and other wild fowl which he sold to local restaurants. In 1890 he bought a barbershop and began running a carriage with six horses between Ensenada and the gold rush camp, El Alamo, about 60 miles to the southeast on a very bad road. His carriage flipped one day that June, and he broke his leg. He was brought to J.J. Meiggs’ cantina in Ensenada to recuperate. A few days later Meiggs attacked his wife with an axe. He was arrested and she took off for California. The day he got out of jail, Meiggs sold the bar to John Hussong and left to search for his wife. Neither was ever heard of again.
In those days, the cantina was located where Papas & Beer is now. However, the next door neighbors complained constantly about the noise, so John—who had by then become Juan—moved his bar across the street, where it’s been ever since. In April, 1892 Hussongs Cantina was established.
Hussongs has always been a place that piques the imagination and whose memory lingers in the mind. My dad told me about his first visit there. It was 1931. He was nine. His dad and some fishing buddies were inside drinking and told him to wait outside. He couldn’t handle the suspense. He had to see what was behind those green doors, so he sneaked in, climbed up onto an empty barstool and ordered himself a Coke. Ricardo told me recently that kids were able to come in and hang with their parents until the early ‘60s, when the laws changed. That was about the time of my first almost-visit to Hussongs. Like my dad, I was told to wait outside, but I was with my mom and sister so we went next door for tacos. When we finished, we stood out front for a few minutes waiting. I remember the music, the laughter. I remember wanting so badly to be old enough to go inside and see for myself just what all the excitement was about.
I had to wait another ten years ... but I’ve been coming back ever since. We always stop in on our way up or down the peninsula after grabbing a couple of tacos next door.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I got my information from a document of the Ensenada Historical Society. I also received an email from the granddaughter of Don Carlos Orozco who thanked me for printing the true story. A friend of mine saw a very old Margarita Hinkle on TV in 2002 recounting the story. So, even though a ridiculous number of bartenders have credited themselves with inventing the Margarita, this is the real deal.
About Author Ann Hazard:
Ann Hazard’s newest book, Agave Sunsets, brings Baja California and its inhabitants—both Mexican and expatriate—to life. In her spirited, laid-back and often hilarious stories, she erases the barriers between cultures and accurately depicts our “neighbors to the south” as the down-to-earth, generous folks that they are. This book is guaranteed to open your eyes, change your perspective … and implant in you un corazón Mexicano.
Agave Sunsets is a collection of 50 treasured Baja tales (each with a color photo) spanning four generations. It all began back in the 1890s with Ann’s grandfather, Pappy Hazard—a notorious and lucky poker player who traveled Baja with Erle Stanley Gardner—creator of Perry Mason. For over 100 years, the Hazard family has adventured in Baja and the stories are recounted in “Boys ‘n Beer in Baja,” and “Fishing for Those Little Bastards,” among others.