“There are 8 million stories in the Naked City” asserted the narrator of the old New York-set TV series. Here in el D.F. there are more like 18 million. And Don Lázaro is one of them. Back in 1944, Lázaro L. Torra, a Spanish Jew, arrived in a post-revolutionary Mexico welcoming to exiles of every description, without a peso in his pocket. The enterprising immigrant saw that just about every housewife was busy cooking up the same beans and rice every day so he opened an unheard of take-away beans and rice stall in the then solidly middle class colonia Santa Maria la Ribera. The successful local business evolved into a homey comida corrida restaurant that remains to this day. It’s name, ‘el viajero’, referrs to the fact that it was once situated on the road out of town and attracted travelers leaving the city.
Torra was well ahead of the times. A well-educated and forward thinking man who spoke fluent English, he believed that all people should be literate and that English would someday become the globally understood common language. Concerned with what he felt was a serious lack of good public education in Mexico, he wanted to give back to the people whose country had so graciously taken him in. So he covered the walls of his restaurant, inside and out, with embossed ceramic tiles containing pictures and words in both English and Spanish; some remain although the outside is badly in need of restoration. He organized classes in the evenings for local children feeding and teaching them to read and write in both idioms. His locale became a school and neighborhood meeting place of sorts and countless meals (and classes) were given away for free. Today, the remnants of this noble experiment sit at the edge of Santa Maria. Sadly, the palm-lined boulevard it once faced was sacrificed during the unconscionable period of urbanization that took place in the ‘70’s to make way for the Circuito Interior, which snakes it’s smoggy way through the city. The good Don is no longer with us, and lessons are no longer offered. But the restaurant, run by his grandchildren, is still a favorite with locals and nearby office workers. It continues to serve more than decent Mexican standards. Caldo de pollo, the house special, is rich and chickeny like your grandmother should have made. Mole is chocolately and not too sweet. Chiles rellenos are fresh, their egg batter fried to golden perfection. The classic Tampiqueña platter, a skirt steak framed with guacamole, frijoles, onions, a quesadilla and rice hits all the marks. And the pastel de elote, a corn pudding served in a puddle of rich eggnog-like rompope is well worth the calories.
El Viajero retains a nice, homey old-fashioned feel and is worth the short walk from the center of Santa Maria. And be sure to check out the tiles, who knows, you might learn something.
Don Lázaro El Viajero
Circuito Interior 241, (near Salvador Díaz Míron,
6 blocks west of the Alameda of Sta. Maria la Ribera)
Tel. 5547 0988
Open 365 day a year for breakfast and lunch.
See my previous article on Santa Maria la Ribera: http://goodfoodmexicocity.blogspot.com/2010/06/on-town-santa-maria-la-ribera.html
To my local DF readers: Support our fledgling Mercado de 100 - this SUnday, January 30, from 9-2 in the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, colonia Roma