Thursday, June 13

Taquería El Califa de León Went From Local Favorite to World Famous

Over a week ago, Taquería El Califa de León was simply one of Mexico City’s nearly 11,000 registered taco shops, though there are undoubtedly many more that aren’t. Sure, it had been around nearly 60 years and was popular, especially among politicians who worked nearby. But it was mostly a locally known taco stand.

Then, on May 14, life changed completely for the cash-only taquería that has barely enough room to stand, sells four kinds of tacos — three beef, one pork — and whose grill radiates intense heat. That day, the Michelin Guide, the world’s most widely recognized arbiter of fine dining, released its first Mexican edition.

Of the 18 establishments in Mexico awarded at least one Michelin star, many of them fancy restaurants, El Califa de León was the only street-food stand. (Outdoor food stands in other parts of the world have been awarded Michelin stars.)

Business has surged since. Wait times have gone from 10 minutes to as long as three hours.

A nearby shop started renting out stools to customers in line. More workers were hired to help meet the soaring demand. Tourists from all over the world are showing up, many snapping photos as the food is prepared. Sales, according to the taco stand’s owner, Mario Hernández Alonso, have doubled.

“It’s been fantastic,” said Arturo Rivera Martínez, who has manned El Califa de León’s grill for 20 years.

Tacos, of course, are emblematic of Mexican cuisine, but particularly so in the capital, a metropolitan area of 23 million people where seemingly every block has a taco shop.

People develop special relationships with taquerías: the one on their block, the one near their workplace, the one with their favorite tacos al pastor, the one open 24 hours.

“In Mexico City, and dare I say in the entire country, tacos are a religion,” said Rodolfo Valentino, 31, who works next door to El Califa de León and has watched the block’s transformation since the stand got its Michelin star. “So that it’s been recognized, it’s important.”

Mr. Hernández, the owner, said awarding a Michelin star to a Mexican street food shop has “opened an opportunity for everyone who doesn’t have a five-star business that’s well assembled, with tablecloths and well-known chefs.”

“For much less than you’d pay at a Michelin restaurant,” he added, “you can enjoy a taco.”

The tacos at El Califa de León are more expensive than a typical street taco, which can cost as little as 60 cents. The cheapest taco Mr. Hernández sells (steak) is roughly $3, and the priciest (pork chop or beef rib meat) is $5. But the pieces of meat at El Califa de León are the size of a large fist and the quality of the meat, Mr. Hernández insisted and some customers confirmed, was better.

“I’ll burn my hands if it’s not true,” he said.

Mr. Hernández, 66, learned the intricacies of meat from his father, a butcher who was involved with the bullfighting world, and became friends with bullfighters and ranchers.

His parents started the taco shop in 1968, after they had opened a restaurant in Mexico City, which remains today.

The taco shop was named after a well-known Mexican bullfighter, Rodolfo Gaona, whose nickname was El Califa de León (The Caliph of León, a city in central Mexico, where Mr. Gaona was born) and who was close with Mr. Hernández’s father.

He was also the inspiration for one of the stand’s signature tacos, the gaonera. Mr. Hernández said that one day his father prepared a thin piece of fillet steak for Mr. Gaona.

But he cooked it differently than the way many tacos are usually made. He marinated the meat in lard, instead of oil squirted onto the grill, and doused it with lime and salt while it cooked, instead of after. He said all of the meat is prepared this way to this day.

The Michelin citation noted that the gaonera taco was “exceptional” and “expertly cooked.” And the combination with freshly cooked corn tortillas was “elemental and pure.”

Even though the guide said that “meat and tortillas of this caliber” made the homemade salsas “hardly even necessary,” customers still reach for the spicy green (serrano peppers) and red (pasilla, guajillo and árbol peppers) condiments.

Mr. Rivera, 56, the meat griller, said he didn’t know what a Michelin star was until representatives of the company delivered the news and invited him to the ceremony in Mexico City.

Even though he didn’t study gastronomy and this was his first cooking job, he has been awarded a white Michelin chef’s jacket. Customers now ask for selfies and watch in awe as he sears the meat.

“It’s exciting because I had never won a recognition like this,” he said. “When you hear the word ‘chef,’ it’s a restaurant. But I work here and I’m very proud.”

A Michelin star, he added, was “incredible” because “in the end, it’s a taquería and a very simple taco” that earned such a distinction.

Some critics have wondered why El Califa de León earned a star and not other more popular taco shops. One social media influencer who reviews food slammed the taquería, saying that it was too costly and that the meat was tough and plain. But many have felt otherwise — or, at least, have been willing to stand in line to try.

“The taquería is going to become a legend,” said Mauricio Alva, 58, a Mexico City resident who decided to pay a visit after watching the Michelin announcement live online.

He and a friend waited two hours a few days ago. “Tastes are complex — you like it or you don’t like it,” Mr. Alva said, “but it’s worth coming to support them and acknowledging that they earned this recognition for a reason.”

The cramped sidewalk in front of the taco stand has buzzed with life. Some nearby shops have grumbled about the large crowds, saying it has interfered with their business.

But others have adapted: One sold drinks to customers in line and Mr. Valentino’s family’s clothing store set up tables for the taco stand’s customers among the men’s underwear, shirts and mannequins.

Eileen Sosnicki, 38, and Erika Mahon, 39, both visiting from Chicago, came to El Califa de León after landing earlier on Wednesday and waited 75 minutes. They have previously visited Mexico City and eaten at some of the upscale restaurants also awarded Michelin stars. But once they heard about a taco shop joining the ranks, they wanted to sample it as well.

“The experience is like half of it,” Ms. Mahon said. “And there are different levels of experience. The taco stand has its own experience and aura, and the experience at the sit-down is different. Neither is better or worse, but people can be more snobby about it.”

In line with them were, among others, Britons, Germans, Nicaraguans, Hondurans and Dominicans.