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The taco stand that went from a local favorite to a Michelin favorite

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A week ago, Taquería El Califa de León was just one of nearly 11,000 restaurants in Mexico City. Registered Taco Shopthough there are undoubtedly many that aren’t. Sure, it’s been around for nearly 60 years and is popular, especially among politicians who work nearby. But it’s primarily a locally known taco stand.

On May 14, life changed forever at the cash-only taco shop, which had barely enough space for a booth and only four tacos to sell—three beef burritos, one pork—and blazing heat from the grill. Michelin GuideThe world’s most recognized authority on gastronomy has released its first Mexican version.

Of the 18 restaurants in Mexico that have received at least one Michelin star, many of them high-end, El Califa de León is the only street food stand. (Outdoor food stands in other parts of the world have also received Michelin stars.)

From then on, business started to boom. The waiting time increased from 10 minutes to as long as 3 hours.

A nearby shop began renting stools to customers waiting in line. More workers were hired to meet the soaring demand. Visitors from around the world came, many taking photos of the food as it was prepared. Sales doubled, according to Mario Hernández Alonso, the owner of the taco stand.

“It’s amazing,” said Arturo Rivera Martínez, who has worked at El Califa de León Grill for 20 years.

The taco is, of course, the symbol of Mexican cuisine, but that’s especially true in the capital, a metropolitan area of ​​23 million people where there seems to be a taco shop on every block.

People develop special relationships with Mexican restaurants: the one on their block, the one near their work, the one with their favorite al pastor tacos, the one that’s open 24 hours a day.

“In Mexico City, and I dare say in the whole country, tacos are a religion,” said Rodolfo Valentino, 31, who works next door to El Califa de León and has seen the neighborhood transformed since the stand received a Michelin star. “It’s important to have it recognized.”

Owner Hernandez said giving a Mexican street food restaurant a Michelin star “gives an opportunity to all those people who don’t have five-star restaurants, tablecloths and famous chefs.”

“You can enjoy a burrito for a fraction of the price you’d pay at a Michelin restaurant,” he added.

El Califa de León’s tacos are more expensive than regular street tacos, which cost 60 cents. Mr. Hernández sells the cheapest tacos (steak) for about $3, and the most expensive (pork chop or flank steak) for $5. But Mr. Hernández insists that the meat at El Califa de León is better quality, as some customers confirm.

“If this wasn’t true, I would burn my hands,” he said.

Hernandez, 66, learned the intricacies of meat from his father, a butcher who was involved in Bullfighting Worldand befriended bullfighters and ranchers.

His parents opened the taco shop in 1968 after owning a restaurant in Mexico City that is still in business today.

The taco shop is named for Rodolfo Gaona, a famous Mexican bullfighter nicknamed El Califa de León (the Caliph of León, a city in central Mexico where Mr. Gaona was born) and who was close to Mr. Hernández’s father.

He also provided the inspiration for the stand’s signature enchilada, gaonera. Hernandez said his father prepared a thin slice of filet mignon for Mr. Gaona one day.

But his cooking style differs from the usual practice for many tacos. He marinates the meat in lard rather than spraying the oil on the grill, and drizzles it with lime and salt while it’s grilling, not after. He says all meat is cooked that way to this day.

this Michelin Citations He noted that the gaonera tacos were “very special” and “very expertly cooked.” The combination with the freshly cooked tortillas was “very original and pure.”

Although the guide says that “meat and tortillas of this quality” make homemade salsa “almost unnecessary,” patrons still flock to the spicy green (serrano chilies) and red (pasilla, guajillo and arbol) condiments.

Mr. Rivera, the griller, said he had no idea what a Michelin star was until company representatives delivered the news and invited him to a ceremony in Mexico City.

Even though he had no culinary training and this was his first job as a chef, he was awarded a Michelin white chef jacket. Now customers ask for selfies and watch in wonder as he grills meat.

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

He added that receiving a Michelin star was “amazing” because “at the end of the day, it’s a Mexican restaurant and a very simple taco” that has received such an honor.

Some critics wondered why El Califa de León received one star while other more popular taco shops did not. Slamming Mexican restaurantssaying it’s too expensive and the meat is tough and bland. But many people don’t think so – or at least are willing to line up to try it.

“This Mexican restaurant is going to be a legend,” said Mauricio Alva, 58, a Mexico City resident who decided to visit after watching the Michelin Guide live online.

A few days ago, he and a friend waited two hours. “Tastes are complicated — you like it or you don’t,” Mr. Alva said, “but it’s worth coming to support them and recognize that they have been recognized for a reason.”

The narrow sidewalk in front of the taco stand was packed with people. Some nearby businesses complained about the crowds, saying they were hurting their business.

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

Eileen Sosnicki, 38, and Erika Mahon, 39, both tourists from Chicago, waited 75 minutes for their turn at El Califa de León after arriving earlier in the day. They had been to Mexico City before and eaten at some of the finer restaurants that also received Michelin stars, but when they heard about a taco place joining the fray, they wanted to try it, too.

“The experience is only half of it,” Ms. Mahon said. “And there are different levels of experience. A taco stand has its own experience and atmosphere, and a sit-down experience is different. Neither is good or bad, but people can be more discerning about it.”

They were joined by British, German, Nicaraguan, Honduran and Dominican nationals.

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