Sunday, June 23, 2024

Which Mexico City taquería just won a Michelin star?

A “bare bones” Mexico City taqueria with “just enough room for a handful of diners to stand at the counter” — but offers a signature beef-filet taco that is “exceptional” — is among the 18 Mexico restaurants recognized with a coveted Michelin star this week.

Taquería El Califa de León, which has but four food items on its menu, is the only taco purveyor among the 16 restaurants that received one or two stars when the French dining guide unveiled on Tuesday its first grouping of Mexico-only honorees in the Michelin Guide Mexico 2024.

Chef Arturo Rivera Martinez at the grill at his Mexico City taqueria
Chef Arturo Rivera Martínez in the days before he donned the Michelin white jacket. (Aracely Martínez/Ovaciones)

It also is the first Mexican taquería to receive the honor from the legendary international dining guide.

Most of the winners on the list are posh eateries in swanky settings. But not El Califa de León, a taco stand that’s been operating in the scruffy-but-now-semi-bohemian San Rafael neighborhood of Mexico City since 1968.

Michelin’s blurb on the tiny taquería Chef Arturo Rivera Martínez made famous includes the phrases quoted above, as well as the unequivocal praise: “There is a reason why El Califa de León has endured for more than half a century.”

The main reason? The Gaonera taco, described by Michelin thus: “Thinly sliced beef filet is expertly cooked to order, seasoned with only salt and a squeeze of lime. At the same time, a second cook prepares the excellent corn tortillas alongside. 

“The resulting combination is elemental and pure. Other options are few but excellent and include bisteck (beef steak), chuleta (pork chop), and costilla (beef rib). With meat and tortillas of this caliber, the duo of house-made salsas is hardly even necessary.”

Each order comes two to a plate, with the bisteck tacos costing 53 pesos, the Gaonera tacos 70 pesos, and chuleta and costilla tacos 82 pesos (from USD $3.18 to $4.92). High-priced by Mexican standards? Perhaps, but the faithful don’t seem to be complaining. 

Framed image of Luis Donaldo Colosio
One of the taquería’s famous patrons was presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. (Tripadvisor)

Newly minted Michelin-starred Chef Rivera Martínez was presented with the famous white chef’s jacket on Wednesday, while on the job. Asked what drink he likes to pair the taco stand’s award-winning fare with, Rivera Martínez reportedly told CNN, “I like a Coke.”

The stand’s founder, Juan Hernández González, created the Gaonera taco and named it — and his shop — after the famous Mexican bullfighter Rodolfo Gaona (1888-1975) and the now ubiquitous gaonera maneuver that the toreador invented 125 years ago. Born in León, Guanajuato, Gaona’s nickname was “El Califa de León.”

Patrons at the popular Mexico City taquería are greeted upon arrival by a huge griddle, upon which is a menu that’s remained the same for nearly six decades. There is also a picture of a former El Califa regular: politician Luis Donaldo Colosio, a presidential candidate who was assassinated in Tijuana at a campaign rally in 1994.

Aside from perhaps a few street food stalls in Southeast Asia, El Califa de León is probably the smallest restaurant ever to get a Michelin star. Nearly half of the 9.29 square meters (100 square feet) of the feted taquería is taken up by a solid-steel grill — which heats up to an astounding 360 C (680 F) and is one of the only “secrets” of the shop’s success that Rivera Martínez is willing to disclose.

Thanks to its popularity, a new location of El Califa de León opened in Naucalpan, México state, in 2019.

The original, at Avenida Ribera de San Cosme 56, in the San Rafael neighborhood, is located in Mexico City’s Cuauhtémoc borough. It is open every day from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

It’s always been advisable to arrive early to avoid the crowds — and now it’s probably more crowded than ever. 

Thanks a lot, Michelin Guide.

With reports from El Financiero, El Universal, CNN and Associated Press

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