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The first Mexican taco stand to earn a Michelin star is a small business where the heat prepares the meat

MEXICO CITY — Newly starred chef Arturo Rivera Martínez stood in front of an incredibly hot grill Wednesday at the first Mexican taco stand to receive a coveted star from France’s gastronomic guide, and did the exact same thing he’s been doing for 20 years: searing meat.

Although Michelin representatives came to present him with one of the company’s heavy, immaculate white, long-sleeved chef’s jackets on Wednesday, he did not put it on: in this small restaurant (3 meters by 3 meters) business , the heat makes the meat. And the heat is intense.

At Mexico City’s Tacos El Califa de León, in the scruffy, bohemian neighborhood of San Rafael, there are only four things on the menu, all tacos, and all of which come from a region around a coast, a loin or front shank of a cow.

“The secret is the simplicity of our taco. There’s just a tortilla, a red or green sauce, and that’s it. That and the quality of the meat,” said Rivera Martínez. He is also probably the only Michelin-starred chef who, when asked what drink should accompany his meal, replies “I like a Coke”.

It’s actually more complicated than that. El Califa de León is the only taco stand among 16 Mexican restaurants awarded one star, as well as two restaurants awarded two stars. Almost all the others are pretty darn fancy restaurants (hint: lots of expensive seafood served in pretty shells on custom-made plates).

In fact, aside from perhaps a street food stall in Bangkok, Thailand, El Califa de León is probably the smallest restaurant to ever earn a Michelin star: half the 100 square foot space (9 .29 square meters) is occupied by a solid steel plate grill that is hotter than salsa.

The other half is filled with standing customers holding plastic plates and ladles of salsa, as well as the assistant constantly rolling out rounds of tortilla dough.

In a way, El Califa de León is a tribute to resistance to change. He got there by doing the exact same four things he’s been doing since 1968.

Thousands of times a day, Rivera Martínez takes a thinly sliced ​​fresh beef tenderloin from a pile and places it on the piping hot steel grill; it sizzles violently.

He throws in a pinch of salt, squeezes half a lime on top, and grabs a round of freshly rolled tortilla dough from the sturdy metal plate to fluff it up.

After less than a minute – he won’t say exactly how long because “it’s a secret” – he flips the beef with a spatula, flips the tortilla and, very quickly, pours the fresh, cooked tortilla onto a plate in plastic, place the tortilla. beef on top and calls out the name of the customer who ordered it.

All sauces – bright red or equally atomic green – are added by the customer. There is no place to sit and, at certain times of the day, no place to stand as the sidewalk in front of the business has been taken over by street vendors selling socks, batteries and accessories for cell phones years ago.

Not that you really want to eat at the little taco restaurant. The heat of a spring day is overwhelming.

Heat is one of the few secrets Rivera Martínez would share. The steel grill needs to be heated to an incredible 680 degrees (360 Celsius). When asked how it felt to earn a Michelin star, he responded in classic Mexico City slang, “está chido… está padre,” or “it’s neat, it’s cool.”

Prices are quite high by Mexican standards. A single generous but not huge taco costs almost $5. But many customers are convinced that it is the best, if not the cheapest, in town.

“It’s the quality of the meat,” said Alberto Muñoz, who has been coming here for about eight years. “I have never been disappointed. And now I recommend it with even more reason, now that it has one star.

Muñoz’s son Alan, who was waiting for a beef taco alongside his father, said “this is a historic day for Mexican food, and we are witnessing it.”

It’s about changing nothing: the freshness of the tortillas, the menu, the layout of the restaurant. Owner Mario Hernández Alonso doesn’t even reveal where he buys his meat.

But times have changed. El Califa de León’s most loyal clientele originally came from politicians from the former ruling party, the PRI, whose headquarters are about five blocks away. But the party lost the presidency in 2018 and has been in steady decline, and it’s now rare to see anyone in a suit here.

And Hernández Alonso noted that his father Juan, who founded the company, never bothered to trademark the Califa name and so a sleek, well-funded taco chain opened about 15 spacious restaurants in upscale neighborhoods under a similar name. Hernández Alonso is considering starting his business on social media, but it depends on his grandchildren.

By law, following the coronavirus pandemic, restaurants in Mexico City were allowed to open covered street-side seating areas. But El Califa de León doesn’t even have a sidewalk for customers to eat on because of all the street vendors, so customers now stand shoulder to shoulder with displays and plastic mannequins.

When asked if he would like them to make room for a street-side seating area, Hernández Alonso expressed an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude.

“As the saying goes, why repair or change something that is going well? You shouldn’t fix anything,” he said, pointing to the street vendors. “This is the way God ordained things, and it must be faced.”

ABC News

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