On my recent trip to Mexico City with Street Gourmet LA founder Bill Esparza, we explored a series of cantinas, some raucous, one lifeless and a third that was surprisingly refined. We communed with a trio of local women during our Friday morning meal at Fonda Margarita and they generously shared a number of recommendations. Our best meal of their batch turned out to be at Bar El Sella in the neighborhood known as Cuauhtémoc.
The chic cantina occupies a Cuauhtémoc side street and is named for a town in Spain. Jose del Valle Cazo ran the 80-year-old cantina for 45 years, until three years ago, when he passed away. Now his sons own and operate Bar El Sella.
Dapper waiters (some of whom have been working there for 25 years) navigated the spacious dining room. Our waiter Emilio was a total pro, even though he gave me grief for not ordering three drinks at lunch. [FYI: If you visit a Mexico City cantina, plan on ordering three drinks. It’s not like a comedy club, where they force you to order a set number of drinks, but it’s pretty well understood.]
The menu featured four key categories: Entradas, Sopas, Carnes and Pescado. Some of the more interesting options included Pierna Frita (fried leg, of which animal, I have no idea), Tortilla Espanola con Esparragos, Jugo de carne con Jerez and eight different preparations of Robalo (there’s that fish again) including empanizado (pan fried) and doused with salsa de perejil (parsley).
Bar El Sella’s Chamorro is the only menu item listed as an “especialidad” and is available Entero (whole), Deshuesado (boned) and a La Mexicana (with pico de gallo). We went traditional and of course ordered our pork on-the-bone, since that almost always adds an extra dimension of flavor and moisture. The Chamorro (140 pesos ~ $14) was cooked in the oven, bathed in a sauce of garlic, onion and water, which made the meat unspeakably tender, flavorful and crusty at the edges. Pan juices pooled at the bottom of the plate, and as we effortlessly plucked meat from the bone, we ran the meat from through the juices and formed world class tacos using steaming corn tortillas.
Chistorra con Cebolla (65 pesos) turned out to be thin cigar-sized Spanish sausages stained red with paprika and plated with sweet grilled onions. This was a good dish, but compared to the powerhouse chamorro…Okay, it’s probably not a good idea to compare anything with the chamorro.
Manitas de Puerco (65 pesos) – pickled pig’s feet – featured plenty of flavor, especially when accented with pickled onions and carrots, but meat was sparse, and the texture (and color) of the thick pig skin was kind of ghastly. I’m an equal opportunity pork eater, but I may have met my match with this particular cut.
Prior to our trip to Mexico City, I never could have imagined that we’d end up in an upscale Spanish cantina in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, but it turned out to be one of the most interesting eating experiences of the weekend. Salud.