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Mexican Table Service

MEXICO CITY, Mexico- I get a hairy sort of eyeball every time I walk into the Lahuma cafe on University Avenue in the Coyocan district of Mexico City. I don’t let this bother me. I open up my laptop, connect to the internet, order some coffee, and go to work. Overt unfriendliness bothers me, the [...]

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MEXICO CITY, Mexico- I get a hairy sort of eyeball every time I walk into the Lahuma cafe on University Avenue in the Coyocan district of Mexico City. I don’t let this bother me. I open up my laptop, connect to the internet, order some coffee, and go to work. Overt unfriendliness bothers me, the subvert I can handle without much care.

I woke up this morning to find no food in my room. My wife said she was going to go to the store to pick some up but played with the kid instead. I figured that I would just go to the Lahuma cafe and order one of their slightly over priced breakfasts and just start working. I figure I have to order something anyway, so rather than ordering 12 pesos cups of coffee I could just get a 45 peso breakfast that includes this all so necessary drink.

I am hungry.


I walk into the cafe and say a big hello to the kid working. He scarcely grunts. I sit down at a table, fire up my laptop, and wait for this kid to come and take my order. I watch him wash every table in the entire cafe, one, then another, then another, as he slowly made his way to where I was sitting. He washed my table, still not inquiring if I would like something to eat or drink or even if there was some reason that I was in the cafe other than to sit on my computer.

I waited, hungry, annoyed, but still working.

The kid finally arrives with the menu. I ask for the breakfast menu. He brings it. The breakfasts here work as such:

You get a main course, the choice of fruit or juice, and a coffee.

Empty coffee cup in a Mexican cafe

I order something.  The kid tells me that there is not fruit or juice available — a value of at least 10 pesos. I ask him if the price is still the same for a breakfast missing one of its essential three elements. He said it was. I rephrase my question using a different Spanish construction. He told me that I would have to pay the same amount to receive less.

This cafe serves the same breakfast six days a week, and fruit or juice is always an option — how could they just have forgotten it this morning? What is the thought process behind this?

I suspect there isn’t one.

I say no way and order a cup of coffee.

I don’t like feeling ripped off or cheated. But I also don’t like feeling hungry.

Who won here?


I write this scenario not to whine or complain, but to show a minor social battle that all travelers who go abroad will face over and over again: getting the shaft.

I took the shaft this morning, I took the shaft yesterday during lunch.

My lunch yesterday contained a choice of a really crappy lettuce salad or rice. I was with my wife and Caitlin, our Canadian friend. The waitress told me that there was only salad. I requested rice, knowing that salads tend to be pretty lacking affairs in this part of the world. She told me that there was no rice and that our only choice was salad. I found this difficult to believe, but, very well, I accepted her words as truth. The salads came and they were as I expected: a mound of undressed lettuce with a sad slice of tomato on top. Very well.

I then hear another waitress offer a table of Mexicans rice.

Small beans. This is the stuff of travel that is truly not worth sweating over, but I know that, as a foreigner, I am an easy target for getting the shaft at every turn. It is too easy for a restaurant with an excessive stock of shitty salad to dump it off on a table of foreigners. We are too stupid to complain, we are the pencil neck geeks of a waitress’s social sphere, they know we will just take it — and more often than not we won’t be the wiser. No Mexican will accept a restaurant lying to them about not having any rice.

I will not pay full price for two thirds of a meal, anywhere. I will choose hunger over the shaft, as I know the former will eventually be satiated. The salad that I received yesterday because I did not bulk up and demand the rice that I know ALL Mexican restaurants have an overflowing stock of, well, in a very small and minor sense, that is insatiable.

But more than I hate getting the shaft is aways needing to be on guard against getting the shaft. I feel like a minority in the USA who grows up being told that whitey is going to try to trample them at every turn. The knowledge of perceived or imagined vulnerability breeds paranoia.  I hate being taken as a soft target too dumb to know when I am being disrespected, someone who will take it with a smile.  I would rather be the loud mouth American demanding — sometimes inappropriately and misplaced — to be respected.


Filed under: Coffee, Culture and Society, Food, Mexico, North America

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

8 comments… add one

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  • Rory February 8, 2011, 9:49 pm

    So what do you do? Do you speak up and then take your next meal with a side of spit? And while washing the tables did your waiter just pick that coffee cup up dirty from another table and set it in front of you… doesnt look too appealing. Do you remain the stubborn American and sit there while they treat you like garbage, or do you speak up or just leave? I dont see how you “win” in any scenario. Do you kill them with kindness over time or do you just slam then on your webpage and hope someone there accidentally runs across it on google one day?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 11, 2011, 2:14 pm

      If you do a quick Google search you will find that this page currently ranks #4 for “Lahuma cafe.” Though nobody but the owners will probably ever do a search for this. The page is also in English, making it pretty much a moot point.

      What do I do? I sit there for four hours working on the internet after ordering a single 12 peso coffee, and then use another cafe next time. I have found that restaurants who allow their staff to be lax, lazy, and rude also generally do not care if you complain. I only complain when it seems as if the server is out of line with the place they are operating in — a rogue worker in an otherwise good establishment. When the entire place is lax and all the workers tend to act the same it is a losing battle. Travel on.

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  • John February 8, 2011, 11:35 pm

    You just do what travelers do best, you travel on out of that place and go to another place. You got two choices take it or leave it, and sometimes you gotta leave it.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 11, 2011, 2:08 pm

      Right on, man, right on. Funny that I know that I can expect better service at a faceless multinational chain cafe than at a local one. I am not going to be treated like shit because I want to pride myself in supporting “local” business (Starbucks’ and most other chains are generally locally owned as well). True, a traveler always has the option to leave, it is what we do best.

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  • E.M. February 9, 2011, 5:18 am

    When I don’t get the service I require, I am polite but let the server or restaurant know how they might improve service. They either take it constructively or don’t get my business again. “I really liked your lettuce, and it would have gone very well with the Mexican rice like that table received. Maybe next time, eh?” for instance. Then I let them know I’m writing my review online, and wherenthey can find it. If it’s a regular hangout of mine, I establish a rapport with the proprietors.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 11, 2011, 2:05 pm

      Excellent strategy. Let them know that you are not completely ephemeral haha.

      What I did not mention in this story is that I left this cafe and went to f##king Starbucks. But, you know what? I was treated well there, they actually supplied what they have on the menu, they said hello and goodbye, and they did not get pissed off when I didn’t leave a tip in their country where tipping is not a part of the culture. Funny that Starbucks is hopping full of people while the local cafe is empty. Hmm, I do not think it is just marketing and trend.

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  • Caitlin February 9, 2011, 8:57 am

    I still say that restaurant just had a bunch of extra hamburger topping and decided to dump it on us foreigners.

    What I don’t understand is: what’s in it for the waitress? I mean she obviously doesn’t own the restaurant, so she doesn’t have any financial incentive to give us crap. Mysteries of life in Mexico…

    When I went to that fancy restaurant with those family friends who were visiting, I was freaked out that the service went so far to the other extreme. I mean, do I really need a lady in the bathroom to hand me paper towels? Do I need someone to fawn over me?

    Luckily there are some places that are a nice happy medium.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com February 11, 2011, 2:02 pm

      Haha, right on. I suppose restaurants cater to people they feel are “clientele,” and, well, we are here today and gone tomorrow. Or maybe they just know that we are dumb and shaftable haha. Yes, a medium between poor and excessive service is good — but is not often heard of haha.

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