Northern Exposure: La Tonina: Casa de los Tacos Norteños

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As one turns off busy, ugly Ribera de San Cosme, the spectacular wreck of the mid-century Cine Ópera looms over an otherwise unremarkable San Rafael cross street. From its inauguration in 1949 until it was left in abandon in the ‘90’s, Culture reined here in the first area to be developed outside the historic center. Back in the Golden Era, in between the cinema and another theatre, a small, unremarkable looking fonda opened its doors preceding the inaugural screening ofUna familia de tantas by a few months. Sixty seven years later La Tonina is still here.

Tonina Jackson was the stage name of a successful lucha libre artist who hailed from Monterrey. Frustrated by the dearth of good norteño cooking in the capital, he decided to remedy the situation by opening his own venue for it. Several years later, busy with his fighting career, he passed the keys to his sister. While no longer owned by Tonina’s family, the current administrator, Antonio de la Torre, conserves the traditional food and atmosphere. Once the haunt of such show-biz luminaries as David Silva, Manolo Fabregas and Angélica María the humble locale, which only houses six tables and a counter, is today host to a more down-to earth clientele.

It is rare to find hand fashioned flour tortillas being flung onto a griddle in these parts, but such is our capital, where the fine cooking of every region is represented. The restaurant is staffed by Graciela, Beatriz, Jovita, Patricia and Maria Elena, all ladies of a certain age, who know how to do a great taco norteño –  which is nothing more than a filling so rich it needs no extras –  rolled into a fresh warm tortilla.
These tortillas are fine tuned: elastic, with the slightest crispy edge, they smell of fresh baked bread and will convert anyone who might be stuck with the idea that flour is inherently inferior to corn to their fan base.

The panoply of eight guisados –  cooked stews –  offered as fillings, represent several northern states: Sonora, Nuevo León and Sinaloa. All meat based and most beef, flavors don’t stray from a fairly narrow range. Northern cooking relies on simple ingredients and a select few chilies so while delicious, sauces can be one-dimensional. Nevertheless , at their best they are rich, a beautiful dark brick red and high on the picante scale. Chilorio, the house special recalls the taste of that Tex-Mex classic chili con carne only here it’s beanless. A favorite in the markets of Sinaloa, it is pork cooked with dried chile colorado, garlic, oregano, cumin and vinegar – it resembles Cuban ropa vieja but with a kick.

Machaca, dried reconstituted beef scrambled with eggs is a Monterrey standard and is the only option that could take a spoonful of salsa. Beautiful deep crimson cochi-pecho Sonorense, done with richly flavorful beef breast, is faithful to the Hermosillo original. My favorite is a toss up between cochi-pecho and a savory picadillo con papas, also Cuban-like in its heady simplicity.

While tacos are the thing here, a few other northern specialties are worth sampling. Menudo norteño, a Nuevo León variation of common pancita, is made with tripe in a ruddy pasillo laced broth enriched by the cows trotters. Frijoles maneados are refritos beaten with a bit of queso asadero and are the most common way of preparing beans in the north – here they can be ordered as a taco or alone.

La Tonina offers a unique chance to sample typical northern fare; this is honest folk cooking at its best.

La Tonina: la Casa de los Tacos Norteños
Serapio Rendón 13, (3 blocks west of Insurgentes, South of San Cosme) Colonia San Rafael
Metro San Cosme, Metrobus: Revolución
Open Monday – Saturday 9 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sunday 10 – 8

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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.