El Califa: Spit-Shaved Pork, Salsas and Stars in Condesa

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Restaurant Sign Mexico City

El Califa vies for al pastor supremacy in Condesa.

From the moment my plane landed in Mexico City, there was no doubt that my first meal would involve spit-shaved pork. Condesa is the birthplace of pastor, so it certainly made sense to go to that neighborhood. It was just a matter of whether the starting point would be El Farolito, El Califa or El Tizoncito – the 1966 originator. Logistics made my decision easy. The closest restaurant after exiting the Chilpancingo Metro station was El Califa, which has thrived for over two decades.

Sidewalk tables ring the triangular restaurant, which is far from fancy. Well, that’s if you discount the faux chic uniforms. After all, the waitstaff wears variations on the dreaded T-shirt tuxedo, including “suspenders” with forks at the end and “backpacks.”


Rajas Mexico City

The grill was jam-packed with griddled nopales, but my waitress said to order Rajas (38 pesos ~ $3.50) instead.

El Califa lavished sweet strips of Pasilla chiles with onions and a judicious crema. Tucked into warm corn tortillas, the rajas formed the basis for some stellar tacos. El Califa listed this dish under the “Nuevo” category, with Especialidades designated with stars.

Taco Mexico City

Gaona’s (38) also had a star, but it amounted to a thin-sliced, seared filet mignon taco served unadorned.

My waitress suggested pairing it with Salsa Asada, which was prepared in a molcajete with chile de arbol, chile Serrano, onion, cilantro and jitomate (tomato). The salsa certainly helped matters, but much more satisfying bites were just ahead.

Pastor Mexico City

Just behind my table, a masked taquero shaved the achiote-stained pastor to order with speed and precision using a blade that he kept razor-sharp with a nearby rod.

Taco Mexico City

My tiny taco de pastor (11 pesos) involved spit-roasted pork infused with achiote to its lean core, crunchy pineapple sheets, cilantro and onion minced so fine that it was practically translucent.

This was a very good taco that would certainly shame other similar tacos in Los Angeles, but Mexico City held better tacos de pastor.

One thing that jumped out at me at El Califa, and impressed me throughout the course of my trip, was the commitment that even casual restaurants make to producing exceptional salsas.

Salsa Mexico City

My taco de pastor paired especially well with a tangy salsa of tamarind, chipotle and tomato (pictured at top right). They also served ramekins of the aforementioned Salsa Asada, another salsa involving a quartet of chile peppers and a vivid Salsa Verde with chile Serrano, tomato and onion.

Salsa Mexico City

Especial was undoubtedly the most impactful salsa other than tamarind, made to order and served steaming hot. It’s a mixture of salsa asada and salsa verde, plus aceite de olivo (olive oil) and fiery chile habanero. This salsa rated 5 chile peppers on the El Califa scale, and though it didn’t exactly send steam rocketing from my ears, it was certainly spicy.

El Califa turned out to be a great first-meal choice in Mexico City and set the tone for what proved to be a devastating pastor crawl, and a devastating trip in general.

El Califa: Spit-Shaved Pork, Salsas and Stars in Condesa

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

Nice description and photos of the tacos, but La Condesa is not the birthplace of tacos al pastor. (Nor is el Tizoncito even if they do claim to be). The pastor phenomena goes back to the ’50’s and the many Lebanese immigrants, most of whom settled in the centro. One of the first establishments to serve them as such-the earlier version is called ‘tacos arabes’- was ‘El Huequito’ whose original “hole-in-the-wall” still exists on calle Ayuntamiento. I’ve done a video report on the subject…

Nicholas,

Thanks for the clarification. During my visit to El Tizoncito, they certainly claimed pastor invention, though it makes sense that the spit-roasted meat would have origin in the Middle East. Feel free to link to your video report. I’d be interested in watching it.

Yup, I’ve already badgered Bill. He’s gonna give me some recs. Thanks!

I can’t say because I don’t think I’ve ever been. I was looking at your El Farolito write up to see if I recognized it, but sadly I don’t. Thanks to your review,though, I will definitely hit it up next time.

Have you ever been to Playa del Carmen? I’m going to Tulum in a few weeks,and I’m looking for recommendations for my PdC day. Thanks!

Eastside Food Bites,

I’m of the opinion that El Farolito made the best pastor of my life, so by all means check it out on your next visit to Mexico City. I haven’t been to Playa del Carmen, but you should contact Bill Esparza at Street Gourmet LA, who’s seemingly been everywhere in Mexico. He might have some ideas. Have a great trip.

I’ve been to this place a couple of times. Their pastor is really good, and yeah, the salsas are really well done.

Eastside Food Bites,

That’s cool that you’ve also had a chance to try El Califa. How would you compare it to El Farolito?

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