It’s Boston’s second favorite drinking holiday again. Rivaled only by St. Patrick’s Day (and Patriot’s Day, and New Years Eve, and, wait…are the Sox playing?), Cinco de Mayo has a reputation for bringing out boozers with tequila breath and brightly colored sombreros, all of which you can find on most of the Hub’s college campuses today.
But if you’re looking for an authentic Mexican experience and maybe a little history lesson, then skip Fajitas & ‘Ritas and hit up Back Bay’s Casa Romero this Cinco de Mayo.
Casa Romero is the oldest restaurant in continuous operation in the Back Bay, and the oldest authentic Mexican Restaurant in New England, owner and founder Leo Romero said.
“Back then I always complained that there were no good Mexican restaurants in New England,” says Romero. “So my friends finally said, ‘Why don’t you stop complaining and open one?’”
In 1967, still a graduate student at Harvard, he took their advice and opened Casa Mexico. Popular from week one, Romero says Casa Mexico proved there was an obvious need for real Mexican food in Boston, which led him to his next endeavor.
In 1972 he sold Casa Mexico and opened the back alley joint Casa Romero that generations of Bostonians have come to know and love. Bringing with him tokens from Mexico where he grew up (Romero is Lebanese by birth but was raised in Mexico), he designed the whole place to be as authentic as possible, from the coffered door to the brightly colored Talevera tiles brought from Puebla, Mexico, where, coincidentally, the battle of Cinco de Mayo was fought.
Romero says that there are many misconceptions about Mexico and Mexicans: They eat burritos; they’re lazy—“sleeping under a sombrero lying against a cactus. Everyone has a pistol and sombrero and it’s the land of the banditos.” None of this is accurate, he says, but rather a caricature of the culture. Perhaps the most common misconception surrounding Mexico is that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day. It’s not.
“Cinco de Mayo has very little to do with Mexico,” says Romero. “It was an American invention. You ask the average Mexican on the street about May 5th and they have no idea.”
In actuality, Romero explains, May 5th was the date of the 1862 battle of Puebla, which Mexico fought and won against French forces, an arguably insignificant battle that didn’t end the war. According to Romero, Tequila importers, in an effort to hawk more tequila, invented the myth of Cinco de Mayo that’s become so commercialized in the US.
Historically accurate or not, Romero will be smiling because Cinco de Mayo is just so darn good for business.
“And all the tequila distributors keep bringing boxes of junk for us to distribute to people: t-shirts, sombreros…but I don’t want adults wearing them in the restaurant,” he said. Instead, Romero will be hosting a luncheon for local students studying Spanish. “One hundred sombreros are going to the kids,” he says.
Romero doesn’t need gimmicks to host a Cinco de Mayo celebration for the ages. Still, reservations were taken months in advance, and Romero says they’re booked solid—aside from the courtyard and bar seats, which are always first-come, first-served.
“We don’t do anything special because everything we have on the menu, in a sense, is special," Romero said. "And we have a lot of regional dishes from the city of Puebla.”