Humble Taco Stand in Mexico City Earns Michelin Star for Simplicity and Quality

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In the teeming heart of Mexico City, a battalion of chefs in starched white jackets piloting glitzy dining spots would elicit merely yawns if they received the widely coveted Michelin Star. In comparison, this near-mythical accolade accorded to a humble, truly Mexican, four-item menu taco stand in operation for five decades, makes for a fascinatingly heart-warming narrative.

Ensconced amidst the eclectic eccentricity of San Rafael, an unpretentious yet bohemian hub, hustles the newly-acclaimed chef Arturo Rivera Martínez. Spending his Wednesday leaning over a blisteringly hot grill in the very epicenter of Tacos El Califa de León. Rivaled only by the searing midday sun, Rivera Martínez’s grill blazes fiercely. Through the smoke and heat, a dance of age-old tradition has emerged a Michelin star.

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Tacos El Califa de León boasts a sparse menu, offering only four overlooked cuts of beef – Rib, Loin, and Fore Shank. Yet it’s the deceptive simplicity of Rivera Martínez’s sublime tacos that has earned him the approval of the esteemed French Dining Guide. A warm tortilla lathered with a choice of vibrant red or green sauce, topped off with heavenly seared meat, might seem too straightforward. However, for the discerning Michelin-guide marshals, it redefined the gourmet philosophy. As Rivera Martínez poetically puts it, “The secret is the simplicity of our taco and the quality of the meat.”

While sophisticated bistros flaunt wildly inventive cocktails as the perfect pair to their gourmet fare, an uncommonly grounded Rivera Martínez recommends a Coke to accompany his creation. Equally astonishing is that his simple taco stand, hardly a blink-and-you-miss 100 square feet, shoulders the honor of being the only representative of its genre among the sixteen one-star recipients in Mexico.

El Califa de León refuses to waver from its commitment to unpretentious austerity and simplicity. Unchanged since its inception in 1968, Rivera Martínez cradles the tradition tenderly. Serenely as a monk repeating a precious mantra, he marinates the thinly-sliced beef in a splash of piquant lime and a dash of salt before grilling them to perfection.

While the prices might be a bit steep by local standards, for loyal customers like Alberto Muñoz, it’s an investment in the sublime. He exclaims that it’s the best taco, even in the sprawling culinary mecca of Mexico City. He shrugs off the price as a small fee, a tribute to the consistently high quality of Rivera Martínez’s tacos.

Mario Hernández Alonso, the owner of El Califa de León, zealously guards his trade secrets, refusing to let slip even the source of their precious meat. An apparent testament to the advantages of a stalwart resistance to change. Congressional negotiations may take place a mere five blocks away, but at El Califa de León, the only matters of national importance revolve around a heavy grill and two distinctive sauces.

Post the coronavirus pandemic, the Mexico City law council allowed restaurants to entertain canopied street-side seating. However, the nonchalant Hernández Alonso, unfazed by the lack of a sidewalk to set up customer tables, tossed these ideas away. His philosophy – Why fix or change something that’s already alright? In this taco stand, customers, meat, and tradition combine for a tumultuous tango in tight quarters – this is exactly how it’s meant to be.