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 corridarestaurant 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.
Don Cuevas January 25, 2011
The chicken soup looks good. What's the dessert like thing in the yellow sauce?
Nicholas Gilman replies:
The "dessert like thing" is the pastel de elote mentioned in the text. I can't figure out how to keep titles for the photos under them, so I usually don't title the photos. Any ideas, other than embedding titles in photoshop?
Davemx March 4, 2011
El Viajero epitomizes comfort food to me. I've been going there since I can remember (some 30 something years) Regarding 2 of their plates you comment on, the Chiles Rellenos and Caldo de Pollo, you don't mention what, in my opinion, makes them outstanding, unique and delicious. The first are served with thick slices of ripe and slightly sweet plantain, that lend a perfect balance to the spicy Chiles and their tomato sauce. The latter is even more unique; if asked for, you can have some unhatched eggs (huevera) join the garbanzos and rice in that perfect, rich broth. You gotta try it!