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

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Newly Michelin-starred chef Arturo Rivera Martinez stood over an insanely hot grill Wednesday at the first-ever Mexican taco stand to earn a coveted star from the French food guide, and did exactly the same thing he’d been doing for it. 20 years: Grilling meat.

Although Michelin representatives came by on Wednesday to present him with one of his heavy, full-sleeved white chef jackets, he did not wear it: In these small 10-foot-by-10-foot (3-meter-by-3-meter) jackets, the business, the heat You make meat. And the heat is intense.

At Tacos El Califa de León in Mexico City, in the shabby bohemian neighborhood of San Rafael, there are only four things on the menu, all of them tacos, and all of them coming from somewhere around the cow’s rib, loin or front leg.

“The secret is the simplicity of our tacos. It just has tortillas, red or green salsa, and that’s it. That, and the quality of the meat,” said Rivera Martinez. He is also perhaps the only Michelin-starred chef who, when asked which drinks should be Accompanying his food, he replies, “I like Coke.”

It’s actually more complicated than that. El Califa de León is the only taco stand among the 16 Mexican restaurants awarded one star, with two restaurants receiving two stars. Almost all of the rest are very fine restaurants (Hint: a lot of expensive seafood is served in pretty shells on custom plates.)

In fact, unlike perhaps one of the street food stalls in Bangkok, El Califa de León is perhaps the smallest restaurant ever to receive a Michelin star: Half of the 100 square feet (9.29 square meters) of space is taken up by a solid steel plate grill that’s hotter than salsa.

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The other half is filled with standing customers holding plastic plates and salsa ladles, and an assistant constantly rolling out balls of tortilla dough.

In a way, “Caliph de Leon” is a tribute to resistance to change. She got there by doing the same four things she’d been doing since 1968.

Thousands of times a day, Rivera Martinez picks a fresh, thinly sliced ​​beef steak from a pile and places it on the blazing-hot steel grill; I buzzed violently.

He throws a pinch of salt on top, squeezes half a lemon over it, and holds a smooth piece of fresh tortilla dough on the solid metal plate until it puffs up.

A customer gives a thumbs up while eating a taco from taco stand Tacos El Califa de León, in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Tacos El Califa de León is the first ever taco stand to receive a Michelin star from France's food guide.  (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

A customer gives a thumbs up while eating a taco from taco stand Tacos El Califa de León, in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Tacos El Califa de León is the first ever taco stand to receive a Michelin star from France’s food guide. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

An overhead view of Tacos El Califa de León, in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Tacos El Califa de León is the first ever taco stand to receive a Michelin star from the French food guide.  (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

An overhead view of Tacos El Califa de León, in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Tacos El Califa de León is the first ever taco stand to receive a Michelin star from the French food guide. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

After less than a minute — he won’t say exactly how long because “that’s a secret” — he flips the beef with a spoon, turns the tortilla over, and very quickly scoops the fresh, cooked tortilla onto a plastic plate, places the beef on top 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 has been taken over by street vendors selling socks, batteries and cell phone accessories for years.

Not that you’d really want to eat inside a little taco joint. The heat on a spring day is overwhelming.

Heat is one of the few secrets Rivera Martinez will share. The steel grill should be heated to an impressive 680 degrees (360 degrees Celsius). When asked how it felt to receive a Michelin star, he said in classic Mexico City slang: “está chido… está padre” or “It’s elegant, it’s great.”

Prices are very high by Mexican standards. One generous but not huge taco costs about $5. But many customers are convinced that it is the best, if not the cheapest, in the city.

Customers line up to order tacos at Tacos El Califa de León stand, in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Tacos El Califa de León is the first ever taco stand to receive a Michelin star from the French food guide.  (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Customers line up to order tacos at Tacos El Califa de León stand, in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Tacos El Califa de León is the first ever taco stand to receive a Michelin star from the French food guide. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

A customer holds a partially eaten taco at taco stand Tacos El Califa de León, in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Tacos El Califa de León is the first ever taco stand to receive a Michelin star from the French food guide.  (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

A customer holds a partially eaten taco at taco stand Tacos El Califa de León, in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Tacos El Califa de León is the first ever taco stand to receive a Michelin star from the French food guide. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

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

“This is a historic day for Mexican cuisine, and we are witnesses to that,” noted Muñoz’s son, Alan, who was waiting for his beef tacos alongside his father.

It’s really about not changing anything – the freshness of the tortillas, the menu, the design of the restaurant. Owner Mario Hernandez Alonso won’t even reveal where he buys his meat.

RIGHT NAME - Mario Hernandez Alonso, owner of Tacos El Califa de León, speaks with reporters in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Tacos El Califa de León is the first ever taco stand to receive a Michelin star from the French food guide .  (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

RIGHT NAME – Mario Hernandez Alonso, owner of Tacos El Califa de León, speaks with reporters in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Tacos El Califa de León is the first ever taco stand to receive a Michelin star from the French food guide . (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

An employee throws tortillas onto a griddle at a taco stand, Tacos El Califa de León, in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Tacos El Califa de León is the first taco stand ever to receive a Michelin star from the French food guide.  (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

An employee throws tortillas onto a griddle at a taco stand, Tacos El Califa de León, in Mexico City, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Tacos El Califa de León is the first taco stand ever to receive a Michelin star from the French food guide. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

But times have changed. El Caliva de León’s most loyal customer base originally came from politicians affiliated with the old ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, whose headquarters were located 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 wearing a suit here.

Hernandez Alonso noted that his father, Juan, who founded the company, didn’t bother trademarking the Caliva name, so the stylish, well-financed taco chain opened about 15 large-scale restaurants in upscale neighborhoods under a similar name. Hernandez Alonso has been toying with the idea of ​​posting his work on social media, but that’s up to his grandchildren.

By law, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Mexico City restaurants were allowed to open covered street-side seating areas. But El Caliva de Leon doesn’t even have a sidewalk where customers can eat because of street vendors, so customers now stand facing each other with plastic stands and mannequins.

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

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

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