City stories: Restaurante Don Lázaro El Viajero

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“There are 8 million stories in the Naked City” asserted the narrator of that old New York-set TV series. Here in CDMX 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, to save some  the trouble. The business, located in the then solidly middle class colonia Santa Maria la Ribera, evolved into a successful homey family restaurant that remains to this day. Its name, ‘el viajero’, refers to the fact that it was at that time 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; many remain in place. 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 – for an extra rich kick ask for huevera (unhatched eggs). Mole is of the aromatic chocolate variety and not too sweet. Chiles rellenos are fresh, their egg batter fried to golden perfection and are served with heartwarming slices of fried plantain. The classic Tampiqueña platter, a skirt steak framed by guacamole, beans, onions, a quesadilla and rice hits all the marks. And for dessert, the pastel de elote, a corn pudding served in a puddle of rich eggnog-like rompope is well worth the calories. Restaurante el Viajero retains a nice, homey old-fashioned feel and is worth the short walk from the center of Santa Maria (see post) . And be sure to check out the tiles, who knows, you might learn something.

Chicken soup better than your grandmother's
Don Lázaro's recently restored façade
Pastel de elote

Don Lázaro El Viajero
Avenida Instituto Técnico Industrial 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 Google Maps:

First published January 24th, 2011

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About The Author

Nicholas Gilman is a food writer based in Mexico City; he's author of Good Food in Mexico CIty: Food Stalls, Fondas, Fine Dining.