Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'No secret': modest Mexican taco restaurant wins Michelin star

El Califa de Leon is one of 18 restaurants given either one or two stars in the inaugural Michelin Guide Mexico unveiled Tuesday

Published: May 17, 2024 12:17:04 PM IST
Updated: May 17, 2024 08:32:01 AM IST

'No secret': modest Mexican taco restaurant wins Michelin starA woman eats tacos at Taqueria restaurant El Califa de Leon in Mexico City on May 15, 2024. Image credit: Photography Silvana FLORES / AFP©

A hole-in-the-wall taqueria is among the first restaurants in Mexico to be awarded a star by the prestigious Michelin Guide -- an accomplishment its owner credits to "love and effort."

El Califa de Leon is one of 18 restaurants given either one or two stars in the inaugural Michelin Guide Mexico unveiled Tuesday.

The longstanding family business specializes in just four types of tacos and has room for only a few customers at a time in the San Rafael district of Mexico City.

"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," the Michelin Guide said on its website.

"Thinly sliced beef filet 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," it added.

The Gaonera -- which costs a little over four dollars -- was created in honor of the celebrated Mexican bullfighter Rodolfo Gaona, whose nickname in the ring was "El Califa de Leon."

The restaurant was founded more than 50 years ago by the parents of current owner Mario Hernandez.

"My father said, 'Do you want me to tell you the secret of the meat? There is no secret," only "love and effort," the 66-year-old said outside, his voice full of emotion.

Hernandez said his father taught him to always take care of quality, customer service and prices, because "life is a wheel of fortune with high times and low times."

'Well deserved'

On Wednesday, the usual office workers and other regulars were outnumbered by dozens of journalists and gastronomy experts attracted by the Michelin star.

The tacos "are really delicious," said 19-year-old gastronomy student Hector Lancastre, adding that the international recognition was "well deserved."

Two decidedly more upmarket Mexico City restaurants were each awarded two stars.

Michelin praised Quintonil for "an enticing melding of excellent local product, impressive execution, and great creativity to produce refined compositions.

"The tasting menu is constantly evolving but may reveal delights such as crab and shards of blue corn tostada arranged with a vivid pipian verde enhanced with untraditional elements like galangal, lemongrass, and makrut lime," it said.

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At Pujol, meanwhile, "tradition and invention go hand-in-hand in the likes of scallop ceviche with egg salad or grilled Baja coast rockfish with butternut squash puree and sherry foam," it said.

"The savory progression culminates with mole madre, an effort like no other that celebrates Mexican history and cuisine in the most profound way," it added.

Tire-manufacturing brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin launched their first guide in 1900 to encourage motorists to discover restaurants around France.

It has since expanded to dozens of destinations around the world.