Taquería El Califa de León has gone from local favorite to world famous

A little over a week ago, Taquería El Califa de León was simply one of Mexico City’s nearly 11,000 Registered taco shop, although there are certainly many other things that are not so. Sure, it’s been around for nearly 60 years and is very popular, especially with politicians working nearby. But it’s primarily a popular local taco stand.

Then, on May 14, life changed forever for the cash-only taquería, with barely enough room to stand, selling four types of tacos – three beef, one pork – and Grilling radiates very high heat. That day, Michelin Guidethe world’s most widely recognized arbiter of fine dining, has released its first product Mexican version.

Of the 18 establishments in Mexico awarded at least one Michelin star, many of which are luxury restaurants, El Califa de León is the only street food stand. (Outdoor food stalls in other parts of the world have been awarded Michelin stars.)

Business has increased sharply since then. Waiting times have increased from 10 minutes to three hours.

A nearby store started renting stools to customers in line. More workers were hired to help meet rising demand. Tourists from all over the world flock, many taking photos as the food is prepared. Sales, according to taco stand owner Mario Hernández Alonso, have doubled.

“It’s amazing,” said Arturo Rivera Martínez, who managed El Califa de León’s grill for 20 years.

Of course, tacos are emblematic of Mexican cuisine, but especially so in the capital, a metropolitan area of ​​23 million people, where seemingly every neighborhood has a taco shop.

People develop special relationships with taquerías: the one in their neighborhood, the one near work, the one with their favorite tacos al pastor, the one that’s open 24 hours.

“In Mexico City and, dare I say, nationwide,” said Rodolfo Valentino, 31, who works next door to El Califa de León and has watched the block transform since the stall received a Michelin star. , tacos are a religion.” “So it was recognized, which is important.”

Mr. Hernández, the owner, said awarding a Michelin star to a Mexican street food joint has “opened up opportunities for everyone who doesn’t have a well-assembled, five-star business tablecloths and famous chefs.”

“For a price much lower than what you would pay at a Michelin restaurant, you can enjoy a taco,” he added.

The tacos at El Califa de León are more expensive than regular street tacos, which can cost as little as 60 cents. The cheapest taco Mr. Hernández sells (steak) costs about $3, and the most expensive (pork or beef ribs) is $5. But the cuts at El Califa de León are the size of large fists and the quality of the meat, Mr. Hernández claims and some customers claim, is better.

“I would burn my hands if that wasn’t true,” he said.

Mr. Hernández, 66, learned the intricacies of meat from his father, a butcher involved in the butcher trade. bullfighting worldand became friends with bullfighters and ranchers.

His parents started the taco shop in 1968, after they opened a restaurant in Mexico City that still exists today.

The taco shop is named after a famous Mexican bullfighter, Rodolfo Gaona, nicknamed El Califa de León (The Caliph of León, a city in central Mexico where Mr. Gaona was born). and is close to Mr. Hernández. dad.

He was also the inspiration for one of the stall’s signature tacos, the gaonera. Mr. Hernández said that one day his father prepared a thin fillet steak for Mr. Gaona.

But he cooks it differently than many tacos usually do. He marinates the meat in lard, rather than oiling the grill, and sprinkles it with lime and salt while cooking instead of after. He said all meat is prepared this way to this day.

The Michelin quote noted that the gaonera taco was “exceptional” and “expertly cooked.” And the combination with freshly cooked tortillas is “pure and pure.”

Although the instructor says that “this kind of meat and tortillas” make homemade salsa “barely even necessary,” customers still like the spicy green (serrano peppers) and red (pasilla, guajillo and arbol pepper).

Mr. Rivera, 56 years old, a meat griller, said he did not know what a Michelin star was until a company representative informed him and invited him to attend the ceremony in Mexico City.

Although he did not study culinary and this was his first cooking job, he was awarded a white Michelin chef’s jacket. Now customers ask for selfies and watch in amazement as he grills meat.

“It’s exciting because I’ve never won recognition like this,” he said. “When you hear the word ‘chef,’ it’s a restaurant. But I work here and I’m very proud.”

A Michelin star, he added, is “incredible” because “in the end, it was the taquería and the very simple tacos” that earned such a distinction.

Some critics have wondered why El Califa de León received a star and not other famous taco shops. A social media influencer reviews food slam the taquería, saying it was too expensive and the meat was tough and slippery. But many people feel differently – or are at least willing to line up to try.

“Taquería will become legendary,” said Mauricio Alva, 58, a Mexico City resident who decided to visit after seeing Michelin’s online announcement.

He and a friend waited two hours a few days ago. “Hobbies are complicated – you either like them or you don’t like them, but it’s worth coming to support them and acknowledge that they have this recognition for a reason,” Mr. Alva said.

The cramped sidewalk in front of the taco stand was bustling with excitement. Some nearby stores complained about the crowding and said it was hindering their business.

But others adapted: One person sold drinks to customers in line, and Mr. Valentino’s family clothing store set up tables for taco stand customers of underwear, shirts and men’s mannequins.

Eileen Sosnicki, 38, and Erika Mahon, 39, both from Chicago, arrived at El Califa de León after landing earlier in the day and waiting 75 minutes. They had previously visited Mexico City and dined at several high-end restaurants that were also awarded Michelin stars. But when they heard a taco shop was joining the ranks, they wanted a taste, too.

“The experience is like half of it,” Ms. Mahon said. “And there are different levels of experience. The taco stand has its own experience and aura, but the sit-down experience is different. Not better or worse, but people might be more snobby about it.”

Alongside them were the British, the Germans, the Nicaraguans, the Hondurans and the Dominicans.

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