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

MEXICO CITY — New Michelin-starred chef Arturo Rivera Martínez stood over an insanely hot grill at the first-ever Mexican taco stand on Wednesday and earned a coveted star from the French food guide, doing exactly what he's been doing for 20 years : searing meat.

Although Michelin representatives stopped by on Wednesday to hand him one of the company's heavy, pristine white, full-sleeved chef's jackets, he didn't put it on: In this small, 10-foot-by-10-foot (3-meter-by-3-meter) facility, the heat makes the meat. And the heat is intense.

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

“The secret is the simplicity of our taco. It just has a tortilla, red or green sauce, and that's it. That, and the quality of the meat,” says Rivera Martínez. He's also probably the only Michelin-starred chef who, when asked what drink goes with his food, replies, “I like a Coke.”

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

In fact, with the exception of perhaps one street food stall in Bangkok, El Califa de León is probably the smallest restaurant ever to receive a Michelin star: half of the 9.29 square meter space is taken up by a solid steel plate grill that is hotter then the salsa.

The other half is full of standing customers holding plastic plates and scooping salsa, and the female assistant constantly rolling out rounds of tortilla dough.

In a way, El Califa de León is a tribute to resistance to change. It got there by doing exactly the same four things it has done since 1968.

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

He throws a pinch of salt over it, squeezes half a lime on top and places a soft round of freshly rolled tortilla dough on the sturdy metal plate to inflate.

After less than a minute – he won't say exactly how long because “that's a secret” – he turns the meat with a spatula, turns the tortilla over and very quickly scoops the cooked, fresh tortilla onto a plastic plate, places the beef on it and calls out the name of the customer who ordered it.

Any sauces – fiery red or equally atomic green – are added by the customer. There is no place to sit, and at some times of the day, no place to stand, because the sidewalk in front of the business was taken over years ago by street vendors selling socks, batteries and cell phone accessories.

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

The heat is one of the few secrets Rivera Martínez is willing to share. The steel grill should be heated to no less than 680 degrees (360 degrees Celsius). When asked how it felt to get a Michelin star, he said in classic Mexico City lingo: “está chido… está padre,” or “it's neat, it's cool.”

The prices are quite high for 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 about the quality of the meat,” says Alberto Muñoz, who has been coming here for about eight years. “I have never been disappointed. And now I will recommend it with even more reason, now that it has a star.”

Muñoz's son, Alan, who was waiting for a beef taco with his father, noted, “This is a historic day for Mexican cuisine, and we are witnesses to it.”

What really matters is that nothing changes: the freshness of the tortillas, the menu, the layout of the restaurant. Owner Mario Hernández Alonso won't even reveal where he buys his meat.

However, times have changed. The most loyal customer base for El Califa de León originally came from politicians from the old ruling PRI party, whose headquarters are about five blocks away. But the party lost the presidency in 2018 and has been in steady decline, and now it's 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 well-funded, sleek taco chain has opened about fifteen airy restaurants in upscale neighborhoods under a similar name . Hernández Alonso is toying with the idea of ​​getting the company on social media, but that is up to his grandchildren.

The law allows restaurants in Mexico City to open indoor, street-side seating areas after the coronavirus pandemic. But El Califa de León doesn't even have a sidewalk for customers to eat because of all the street vendors, so customers now face each other with stands and plastic mannequins.

When asked if he would like them to make room for a street-side seating area, Hernández Alonso responded with the attitude of “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.”

“As the saying goes, why fix or change something that is fine? You don't have to fix anything,” he said, gesturing to the street vendors. “It's the way God has ordered things, and you have to deal with it.”

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