City stories: Restaurante Don Lázaro El Viajero

“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


2010: The best and the worst of it

The Author at work
photo: Ben Herrera Beristain

Despite the global economic crisis, 2010 was a good year for Mexican foodies, thanks to Unesco’s patrimonial thumbs up and the continued, tireless promotion of all of us in the Mexi-food world (we know who we are). I have fewer complaints than I did last year at this time, more ‘bests’ than ‘worsts’. That’s how life should be.

The best new venues of 2010:

1. Rosetta - Ok, so it’s not Mexican, but Rosetta just happens to be the best thing going in Mexico City. Despite being discovered by the high-hat Roma-slumming crowd from across town and the fact that locals can nary snag a table, Chef Elena Reygadas’ kitchen only gets better, perfecting an ideal culinary combo: great local ingredients done a la Italiana. Tanti auguri!

2. Dulce Patria – I had declared chef Martha Ortiz gone from the scene, Q.E.P.D. – years went by since she left us Aguila & Sol-less. But like Doris Day in Move Over, Darling, she suddenly reappeared from her desert island hideaway raring to go with a new snazzy venue, Dulce Patria. It’s a really fun place to take the out-of-towners and show ‘em a high-class Mexican night on the town. And the food’s good too.

3. El Hijo de la Rauxa – This little place, whose name changes with the direction of the wind, is conceived by chef /Artiste Quim Jardí, late of L’Atelier (see below). It's the best kept comida-only secret in the Condesa – experimental and eclectic albeit simple Mexican cooking – for a ridiculously low price.

4. Mero Toro – The Condesa grew up when this offshoot of the Contramar conglomerate, opened. Little arty dishes that might make Momofoku’s David Chang jealous use ingredients never too far from their home turf. As the place filled up with Prada toting trendies, quality wavered, but it seems they’ve got their act back together and are ready to take it on the road…

5. Nicos – Not new at all, this hidden 50-year-old gem, in Clavería up near Restaurante El Bajio, used to feed such divos and divas as Pedro Infante and Lola Beltran, as it is near Musart’s legendary recording studios. Recently, chef and son of the founders Gerardo Lugo Vazquez has taken over and is presenting a fascinating and unique assortment of rescued recipes that Frida’s parents might have been served.

6.Expendio de Pulques Finos - The first so-called pulquería to open in Mexico in decades is really a multi-level contemporary hipster cantina but hats off to anyone dedicated to keeping an old tradition alive...

And the kvetches:

A house is not a home: Casa Mexico bites the dust. This promising venue for ‘nueva cocina' which I tirelessly promoted, was, with its expert chef Enrique Briz, written up in the Washington Post. It was located on an unlikely ticky-tack strip in the Zona Rosa. So unlikely, in fact, that it failed to
attract enough appreciative diners and ended its days pushing mediocre menus del día and six-packs to less discerning salarymen and office ladies, who will now have to return to Vips.

Other lamentable closings: O’Mei (the all-you-can-eat- Asian gluttons’ mecca), Benkay’s Sunday buffet, whose absence will cause many Japanese expats to return to the old country, and Quim Jardí’s L’Atelier, whose pizza and music were the best in town.

The barefoot Contessa: With the increasing upscaling of the Condesa, innumerable mediocre chain-like, low-class-music spewing Italian joints have opened up. Seems they’re the only type of places that can afford the escalating rents. Sad to say, they’re often full.

Just say “NON!”: Despite the fact that Unesco has recognized Mexican cuisine as ‘intangible patrimony of humanity’, endless promotion of it by Anthony Bourdain, Rick Bayless et al, and that the infrastructure of our capital only gets better and safer, tourists, frightened by the relentless bad news from the foreign media, shun the city and country and are heading for sunny Florida in ever greater numbers.

On that note, read this nice piece in the L.A. Times by Daniel Hernandez in which the likes of culinary history guru Rachel Laudan, market guide-ess Lesley Téllez and I, Good Food in Mexico City author, valiently defend our beloved D.F. street food: