Fans queue round the block as tiny Mexican taco stand wins Michelin star | Mexico

El Califa de León, an unassuming taco joint in Mexico City, measures just 3 metres by 3 metres and has space for only about six people to stand at a squeeze. Locals usually wait for 5 minutes between ordering and picking up their food.

All that changed on Wednesday, however, when it became the first Mexican taco stand ever to win a Michelin star, putting it in the exalted company of fine dining restaurants around the world, and drawing crowds like it has never seen.

On Thursday, the queue stretched to the end of the block as a motley array of tourists and trendsetters joined bemused local people, some of whom had not heard the news.

The taco comes with infinite variations on a theme. It starts with a corn tortilla folded around a typically meaty filling. Then perhaps onion, coriander and guacamole, before a punch of lime and hot sauce is added.

It is usually fast food – but not today.

A local woman named Laura said she had been a customer since she was a child and had never had to wait for more than five minutes, even at lunchtime.

She was surprised but delighted to see her neighbourhood hole in the wall get recognition.

“I took a couple of Chilean friends somewhere else the other day and it was too fancy – they gave us a knife and fork to eat a taco,” she said. “This is the real Mexican taco.”

Customers cram into the small space. Photograph: Héctor Vivas/Getty Images

El Califa de León’s trademark taco is the Gaonera, created in honour of the bullfighter Rodolfo Gaona and churned out without pause since the place opened in 1968.

The essence of this taco is beef fillet so tender it need not be sliced into pieces. It is simply seasoned with salt and cooked with a squeeze of lime on a sizzling grill, before being wrapped in a fresh tortilla and served with green or red salsa.

Michelin, in its report explaining the awarding of a star, said: “This taqueria may be bare bones with just enough room for a handful of diners to stand at the counter but its creation, the Gaonera taco, is exceptional. Thinly sliced beef fillet 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.”

Rodrigo, who was also in the queue on Thursday, has his own taco restaurant, and talked with the faintly aloof air of someone checking out the competition. “I’ve never been before, but I wanted to see what the fuss was about,” he said.

“It’s a bit controversial, choosing just this one taco stand,” he added. “Everyone has their favourite taco – it depends where they’re from.”

Classic tacos include al pastor, carnitas, barbacoa, guisados and tacos de canasta – and the search for the best of each has been the subject of countless books and TV shows.

Of the 18 Mexican restaurants given one or two Michelin stars this week, El Califa de León stands out for its earthiness. Arturo Rivera Martínez, one its chefs, has been serving customers for more than 20 years. “The secret is the simplicity of our taco,” Rivera Martínez told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “It has only a tortilla, red or green sauce, and that’s it. That, and the quality of the meat.”

The queue outside El Califa de León on Thursday. Photograph: Héctor Vivas/Getty Images

The stand occupies a site in San Rafael, a slightly scruffy, middle-class neighbourhood, and the street outside is lined with stalls selling phone cases, cheap jewellery and manicures.

One of the street vendors, David, said he had eaten at El Califa de León a few times. “It’s good. [But] The best tacos in the city? I don’t know.”

“But I’ve never seen so many gringos eating here,” he added.

Inside, El Califa de León is a furnace in a city currently gripped by a heatwave. The four staff – a chef, a meat cutter, a taco roller and a cashier – barely talk, working like a well-oiled machine.

Customers take their plastic plates and stand around eating where they can, sharing bowls of sauce and rubbing their greasy fingers with napkins.

Every few minutes the crowd makes way for a man with two more plastic bags of meat, which he slings behind the counter.

“I’ve no idea how many we’ve made today,” said the cashier, who barely stopped between orders. “A shitload.”

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *