Way Downtown: Doña Chela of Tlalpan
Reluctant to venture south of the Viaducto, I recently risked bearings lost and made my way down to Tlalpan. A surprisingly tranquil little hamlet, Tlalpan was another one of those villages, like Coyoacán, that eventually made its way into the greedy maw of that hungry beast, ‘CDMX' Its quaint small-town center and colonial buildings survive, testaments to the day, not so long ago, when Mexico City’s centro was the centro, and these places existed autonomously and were visited on burro or tram through fields of corn. Central Tlalpan, home to a mix of lumpenproletariat and the decidedly well-heeled, is still tattered at the edges. It could use a little loving care. Huge mansions are minimally maintained. A hundred year old convent is topped by what looks like a five story parking lot, way above the supposed limit – who did those nuns pay off to get their ‘permiso de contrucción’? Unlike Coyoacán whose center is relatively intact, Tlalpan struggles to keep face like an aged Hollywood diva. But a walk down the streets surrounding the peaceful, recently renovated zócalo, pays off. An ancient church, San Agustín de las Cuevas, shimmers, its meditative courtyard providing refuge for the city-weary. Casa Frissac, a mansion of bygone days, houses a museum and cultural center. And the red brick Mercado de la Paz dates to 1888 and is the oldest still functioning market building in the city. Enter through one of its welcoming portals. Inside, down the well-trodden stone paths happens to be one of the best fondas in town: that of Doña Chela.
“¡Sabor y Calidad!” shouts the sign, and Chela doesn’t mince words, just chilies. Covering several stalls due to popular demand, she cooks up a veritable encyclopedia of Mexican antojitos, from tacos de guisados – filled with green or red mole to enchiladas, tostadas, grilled meats, sopes, huaraches (no, not shoes, but large oblongs of meat topped masa). On a cool day one can order a piping hot and rich pozole.
If you had a few too many last night, try a bowl of pancita, that offal hang-over cure, famous from here to Tijuana. And now is the season for chiles en nogada. I had to try one. Chela’s are exemplary – the chile charred just enough to lift the crunch, the savory filling fragrant and, best of all, the ‘nogada’ or creamy nut sauce, which is so often cloying, is sweetened judiciously with a light touch of cinnamon and nutmeg. A winner. I asked Chela, who is surprisingly young to be such a market diva, from whence emanates the recipe. I expected to hear “es de mi abuela” or some such comforting answer. But Chela’s efficient reply was “viene del Once”…that’s TV’s channel 11, the culture station. Let’s face it, sometimes life imitates art and it’s not a bad thing.
Fonda Doña Chela
Mercado de la Paz, just off the main plaza of Tlalpan The best way to get there by public transportation is Metrobus to Perisur, then a short taxi ride.