Saturday, December 10, 2022

The Story Behind "El Cardenal"

Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time has become familiar with "El Cardenal", a chain of restaurants which is one of our favorite places to eat in Mexico City.  Alejandro sent me an article about the restaurant which appeared in the newspaper "El País" last month.  I learned a lot about the history of that wonderful establishment.

More than fifty years ago there was a "taco joint" called "El Cardenal" located near Mexico City's main plaza, the Zócalo.  Despite the fact that it was a very popular lunch spot with government employees from the nearby National Palace, Supreme Court and House of Representatives, the place had gone out of business.  

Around that time, Jesús Briz, his wife Olivia Garizurieta, and their seven children had moved to Mexico City from the state of Michoacán.  Jesús found a job as the manager of the dining room of a private social club.  Oliva was an excellent cook, and Jesús had an interest in traditional Mexican recipes.  They jumped at the chance to buy the defunct taco joint.  Jesús kept the name "El Cardenal" because he viewed the red bird as a good omen.  The menu of their new establishment went far beyond tacos.  In an era when "white tablecloth" restaurants in Mexico City usually served French cuisine, Jesús and Olivia opened an elegant restaurant dedicated to Mexican gastronomy.

The business flourished until 1978.  In that year, electric company workers installing underground cables discovered an enormous Aztec sculpture.  Archaeologists were called in, and it was determined that the foundation of the main Aztec temple lay beneath the city streets.  The government expropriated several blocks of buildings to proceed with the excavation of the archaeological site.  "El Cardenal" was one of the properties to be demolished.  

As luck would have it, Jesús found an abandoned building a few blocks away on Palma Street.  The once elegant structure dates from the late 1800s when French style architecture was all the rage.  With the help of an investor, Jesús bought the building and had it restored to its former glory.  It is today the flagship of the "Cardenal" chain.  

(image taken from the internet)

After the earthquake of 1985, the Historic Center fell into decline.  The restaurant managed to survive, due in part to its clientele of government bureaucrats who continued to patronize the place.  In the early 2000s, the city center was revitalized and beautified.  "El Cardenal" on Palma Street is thriving once again, and on weekends there are usually long lines waiting for a table.  

The children of Jesús and Olivia now operate the restaurant.  They have opened branches throughout the city.  The newest one is across the street from the World Trade Center, just a short walk from the apartment that I rent.  Alejandro and I have eaten at most of the branches, and we have found the quality of food in all of them to be excellent.

Today the restaurant has made a commitment to preserving Mexico's culinary heritage.  All of their bread is baked on site.  The owners have a ranch which is the source of all their dairy products.  They grind their own corn using Mexican strains of seed and have led the fight against genetically modified corn.

"El Cardenal", in my opinion, is one of Mexico City's gastronomic treasures. 

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