The bird that holds pride of place at the Thanksgiving table has just as important a role south of the border. Turkey has actually been a fundamental part of Mexican cooking for centuries: The Aztecs had domesticated the fowl before they had even laid eyes on a chicken.
And while chicken has since overtaken turkey in popularity, the latter remains the traditional feasting bird all over the continent (yes, in Canada too). In Mexico, turkey is usually eaten at weddings and Christmas, but in Mexico City, there are a handful of restaurants that sell turkey tortas all year round.
La Casa del Pavo, “the House of Turkey,” sells much more than just turkey sandwiches. Since 1901, the cramped, homely eatery in the Centro Histórico has also offered whole roasted birds, broth and tacos. The restaurant goes through about 350 turkeys a month. Unlike the overbred, big-breasted, cottony kind that is common in the U.S., Mexican turkeys are smaller and tastier, with more dark meat, much like wild turkeys.
Over the years the restaurant’s menu has expanded to cater to the evolving tastes of its customers, who keep the place packed, even on a Saturday afternoon. There are comida corrida items during the week, as well as lomo de cerdo (spicy adobo-marinated pork shoulder), mole and bacalao a la vizcaína. The Basque-style stew, made with salt cod, tomato, potatoes, olives and chile güero and usually eaten in Mexico around Christmas, is now one of the most popular items on the menu.
Just like us, Joaquín Ponce, the owner (and sometimes busboy and dishwasher) of the restaurant, used to eat at La Casa del Pavo as a kid. He went on to marry the previous owner’s daughter and has been running the place for 55 years. “The recipes are the same as they were 100 years ago,” Ponce told us. He points to a big keg that contains pickled peppers and vegetables. “That red oak keg has been in that spot for 30 years. Not many things have changed around here in a long time.”
In fact, we were immediately transported back to our childhood by the music playing in the background. El Fonógrafo (“the Phonograph”) is an AM radio station that plays oldies from the first few decades of the 20th century. It’s the same radio station that our parents listened to when they wanted to remember the songs from their own parents’ youth. And then we sampled some of the rich, thick turkey broth (consome especial on the menu), which brought back memories of a family dinner we had at the restaurant 20 years ago; it tasted just as we remembered it. The turkey torta was also the same, the telera bread, which is made with less yeast than the larger bolillo also used for tortas, holding the pulled turkey, simply dressed with a little avocado, in a tidy package. We thought we would try something new this time for dessert, and followed the server’s recommendation: double chocolate flan and the homemade arroz con leche (rice pudding). We found ourselves fighting over the last morsels.
Sated by our meal, we couldn’t help but give thanks to the Aztecs, who recognized the value of the turkey so long ago. To them, the birds were the food of royalty. We couldn’t agree more: At La Casa del Pavo, as down-at-heel as the place looks, we ate royally.
Editor’s note: Since Turkey Day is upon us again, we thought it was worthwhile to republish this 2013 review.