We did not come to gaze upon farm animals in a disheveled landscape, beautiful and calming though it is. We came for the food.
Finally we drift into the into the building, and I don’t feel like I’m in Mexico anymore. The inside resembles (to me at least) a Swiss-style dining hall. It’s huge and open. One side is bifurcated from the other by a supporting wall. I have the sense that the room on the right, filled with an uninterrupted stream of highly-lacquered tables and chairs, is a newer addition, whereas the space on the left seems to be more quaint and cozy. You are far less likely to get swallowed up on the left side.
We gravitate towards the only unfinished table in the room. It sits beneath a window, just beyond the glass is the grey morning. Inside is a delicious promise. A large earthenware oven occupies part of our little corner, but of greater interest are the two ladies with bowls the size of car tires filled with one or the other of two types of dough. Corn or flour.
Like professional athletes, they warm up, and then they are lightening. They are a series of movements, like the gears of a watch flowing inevitably from the consequence of its perfect design. Grab, roll, pat and press. Slap, watch, tap and flip. Rescue. Serve.
Just as we’re about to succumb to the pools of saliva collecting in our mouths and rudely intrude on their assembly, magic happens. Chips and salsa and this delicate moist queso fresco appears before us. Cheese? For free? Really? We look up at our server, a young man-boy who was probably still in high school hands the menus to us.
Cafe, por favore.
Regular or mexicana?
Um… Regular? (wrong answer, by the way, unless you’re a diner-coffee purist. A. got the mexicana coffee our 2nd time there and was rewarded with spicy goodness.)
A. knows what he wants to order. He’s been pontificating on the machaca since we heard about the place. A thorough inspection of the menu confirms his desire. I have not thought about it. A cluster of choices worryball through my mind, but finally I choose. Huevos con nopales—which is eggs and cactus leaves and is as authentic as a vegetarian can get.
We graze through the chips, queso fresco and salsa the way the cows graze through their cud a few hundred feet away. The cheese is moist and so fresh it’s as though the cows gave up their milk for it mere days ago. Bite, after bite. Experiments with cheese and chip and salsa assembly. By the time our food arrives, we’ve excavated much of the elevation from our mound of cheese, and dug a hole into the chips.
After the first forkful of our actual breakfast, however, all doubt that we can pile in more food evaporates. It’s delicious, down to the weird, goopy, starchy refried beans. I alternate between the corn tortillas and the flour, both so hot out of the basket they sear my hands. Simplicity renders the tortillas delicious. They are the essence of themselves, pure without preservatives.
Maybe it’s the setting, maybe it’s their seasonings or ingredients. Whatever it is results in sharp flavor on my tongue. The eggs and nopales are mixed with onion and peppers. I can’t tell what else they’ve put into the dish. Salt and pepper, likely. Homemade chili powder, maybe. Attention and intention, definitely. I eat it all.
I understand the reverence people have for this place. There is something special La Cocina de Doña Esthela. It’s a mecca for the palate, but in such a humble and unpretentious way. It is simple, focused on the ingredients, but I think more than that, it is focused on the community. Those two elements combine into a genuine affection, an open conviviality, which isn’t on the menu, but lives in every plate.