Taquería El Califa de León went from being a local favorite to being world famous

More than a week ago, Taquería El Califa de León was simply one of nearly 11,000 registered taquerias in Mexico City, although there are undoubtedly many more that are not. Sure, it had been around for almost 60 years and was popular, especially among the politicians who worked nearby. But it was mostly a locally known taco stand.

Then, on May 14, life changed completely for the cash-only taco shop with barely any standing room, four types of tacos (three beef, one pork) and whose grill radiates intense heat. . That day, the Michelin Guide, the most recognized arbiter of good food in the world, launched its first Mexican edition.

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

Business has increased since then. Wait times have gone from 10 minutes to up to three hours.

A nearby store began renting stools to customers waiting in line. More workers were hired to help meet the growing demand. Tourists come from all over the world and many of them take photographs while the food is being prepared. Sales, according to the owner of the taco stand, Mario Hernández Alonso, have doubled.

“It’s been fantastic,” said Arturo Rivera Martínez, who has tended the grill at León’s El Califa for 20 years.

Tacos, of course, are emblematic of Mexican cuisine, but especially in the capital, a metropolitan area of ​​23 million people where seemingly every block has a taqueria.

People develop special relationships with taquerias: the one on their block, the one near their workplace, the one with their favorite al pastor tacos, the one open 24 hours a day.

“In Mexico City, and I dare say throughout the country, tacos are a religion,” said Rodolfo Valentino, 31, who works next door to El Califa de León and has watched the block’s transformation since the position obtained its Michelin star. “For it to be recognized, it’s important.”

Hernandez, the owner, said giving a Michelin star to a Mexican street food shop has “opened up an opportunity for everyone who doesn’t have a five-star business, well put together, with tablecloths and well-known chefs.”

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

El Califa de León’s tacos are more expensive than a typical street taco, which can cost as little as 60 cents. The cheapest taco Hernandez sells (steak) costs about $3, and the most expensive (pork chop or beef rib) costs $5. But the pieces of meat at El Califa de León are the size of a large fist and the quality of the meat, Mr. Hernández insisted and some customers confirmed, was better.

“I’ll burn my hands if it’s not true,” he said.

Hernández, 66, learned the intricacies of meat from his father, a butcher who was involved in the bullfighting world, and became friends with bullfighters and ranchers.

His parents opened the taqueria in 1968, after having opened a restaurant in Mexico City, which remains today.

The taqueria is named after a well-known Mexican bullfighter, Rodolfo Gaona, whose nickname was El Califa de León (El Califa de León, a city in central Mexico, where Mr. Gaona was born) and who was close to Mr. Hernández . father.

It was also the inspiration for one of the stand’s characteristic tacos, the gaonera. Mr. Hernández said that one day his father prepared a thin piece of steak for Mr. Gaona.

But he cooked it differently than many tacos are usually made. She marinated the meat in lard, instead of the oil she poured on the grill, and sprinkled it with lime and salt while it cooked, rather than after. He said that all meat is prepared this way to this day.

The Michelin citation noted that the gaonera taco was “exceptional” and “expertly cooked.” And the combination with freshly made corn tortillas was “elemental and pure.”

Although the guide said that “meat and tortillas of this caliber” made homemade sauces “almost not even necessary,” customers still opt for the spicy green (serrano chiles) and red (pasilla, guajillo, and arbol chiles). ).

Rivera, 56, the steakhouse, said he didn’t know what a Michelin star was until company representatives broke the news to him and invited him to the ceremony in Mexico City.

Although he did not study gastronomy and this was his first job as a cook, he has been awarded a Michelin white chef’s jacket. Customers now ask for selfies and watch in amazement as he browns the meat.

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

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

Some critics have questioned why León’s El Califa got one star and not other more popular taquerias. A social media influencer who reviews food criticized the taqueria, saying it was too expensive and the meat was tough and plain. But many have felt otherwise, or at least have been willing to wait in line to try.

“The taqueria is going to become a legend,” said Mauricio Alva, 58, a Mexico City resident who decided to pay a visit after seeing the Michelin ad live online.

He and a friend waited two hours a few days ago. “Tastes are complex: you like it or you don’t like it,” Alva said, “but it’s worth coming to support them and recognize that they earned this recognition for a reason.”

The narrow sidewalk in front of the taco stand is bustling with life. Some nearby stores have complained about the large crowds, saying it interferes with their business.

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

Eileen Sosnicki, 38, and Erika Mahon, 39, both visiting from Chicago, arrived at León’s El Califa after landing earlier that day and waited 75 minutes. They previously visited Mexico City and ate at some of the luxury restaurants that also received Michelin stars. But once they heard that a taqueria was joining the list, they wanted to try it too.

“The experience is like half of it,” Mahon said. “And there are different levels of experience. The taco stand has its own experience and aura, and the experience at the restaurant is different. Neither is better or worse, but people can be more snobbish about it.”

At his side were, among others, British, Germans, Nicaraguans, Hondurans and Dominicans.

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