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Jun 3, 2024

A Mexico City Taqueria Grabs a Michelin

But who won a Pirelli, Bridgestone and Goodyear?

By Ed Goldman

When I heard last week that Taquería El Califa de León in Mexico City was awarded a star in Michelin’s first guide to Mexico, I had the same feeling I had when the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Bob Dylan: Well, why the hell not?!

I’m sure each respective news item made the eyeballs of thousands of chefs and authors roll skyward then pop out of their body politic—though crossover reactions mustn’t be ruled out since many writers know how to cook and many chefs know how to write. But honoring Dylan with the same prize that’s gone home with Ernest Hemingway, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro and Toni Morrison doesn’t seem the least inconsistent to me: each spoke to their times in their individual voices and styles.

Edgy Cartoon

Time to re-tire?

Similarly, why shouldn’t a taco stand be accorded the same respect as, say, San Francisco’s Dumpling Home, L.A.’s Sushi Takeda or, in a similar spirit, Miami’s Hoja Taqueria? Michelin winners all.

In fact, if you look up the winners of Michelin awards, you may be surprised by how many eateries have copped the award. (While you’re at it, look up the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature since the ritual began in 1901, and tell me how many of these names you recognize—from Sully Prudhomme (1901) to 1903’s Bjornstjerne Bjornson, from Grazia Deledda (1926) to 1951’s Pär Lagerkvist.

“Honey, turn off the light and come to bed.”

“Just as soon as I finish reading the new Pär Lagerkvist book, Babe. It’s very compelling.”

“More so than Grazia Deledda at her best?”

“Well, now that’s a bit unfair. Nobody can top our gal Grazia.”

Back to tacos. They’re so ubiquitous in so many countries that finding the best one’s got to take very discerning taste buds and a cast-iron stomach. In our country alone, there were 47,144 Mexican restaurants as of a year ago, according to ibis.com, a destination website (and wouldn’t we all like ours to be one of those?).

A lot of people laughed six years ago when Taco Bell was named the best Mexican restaurant in the U.S. based on a Harris Poll of people’s favorite brands. More than 77,000 customers were surveyed about 3,000 brands, with Taco Bell topping Chipotle, Baja Fresh, Del Taco, and Qdoba—all fast-food chains. So in essence, people might have been voting on the one whose food consistently caused them the least amount of stomach distress. Here I need to advance one of my conspiracy theories:  Does the same company that owns Taco bell (Yum! Brands) also have an owner’s stake in Pepto Bismol?

I enjoy eating and making tacos, both only occasionally. They’re certainly easy to prep, especially if you buy ready-made tortillas. Yet until I moved to California as a wee lad, I never even knew they existed. Mexican food was confined to certain geographic regions of New York City and simply wasn’t as popular as Italian and Chinese food. People might say, “Wanna do Chinese tonight” or even “I’m feelin’ Italian.” I never heard anyone day, “Let’s do Mexican.”

Maybe that’ll change with Taquería El Califa de León’s Michelin award. Mexico City may be a long way from New York but it’s remarkable how often cuisine serves as a bridge between cultures and airports. It wasn’t always this way—but as a Nobel Prize winner once alerted us, the times they are a’changing. 

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).