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Once considered Mexico City’s next hot neighborhood, Santa María la Ribera, near the city’s center and one of its first suburbs, has been slow to deliver on that promise. While neighborhoods just to the south have stolen Santa María’s thunder, it’s finally showing signs of life – one of which is the restaurant/cooking school La Casona del Sabor.

Built 140 years ago by a German immigrant couple, the building that houses La Casona features traditional colonial architecture, including a grand entrance that leads into a spacious, landscaped courtyard. Looking out over the courtyard is a colorfully tiled verandah that connects to multiple rooms. Once family quarters, these rooms now serve the culinary school. The school’s head chef, Jorge Luiz Alvarez, began the school seven years ago in his nearby apartment, but when space became tight, he took over the house and expanded the business. To take advantage of the hours in which school is not in session, seven months ago Alvarez opened a restaurant in the same space.

On a recent visit, we took a table in the middle of the covered courtyard, the restaurant’s dining area. A fountain original to the house gurgled charmingly in the background, while a preening rooster pecked and scratched in his adjoining enclosure. We ordered a pitcher of agua de verdolaga. Made from purslane, a succulent, the drink was deep green in color, smelled like a freshly mown lawn and had the bright, intense chlorophyll flavor of wheatgrass.

From the short menu, we chose the migas, a hearty beef soup made with dried breadcrumbs, lime juice, oregano and chile canica, followed by enchiladas de mole tapatio, corn tortillas stuffed with chicken, caramelized onions and soft, diced sweet plantains. Similar to mole negro, but without the chocolate and with a greater variety of chili peppers, the inky brown sauce veered less sweet and more spicy, though the plantains within the enchiladas tamed the heat somewhat. The tasty mole de quelites was made with wild greens and topped with tender, bone-in chicken. Both moles came with a side of plain white rice – all the better to sop up every last drop of sauce.

La Casona also serves a variety of tamales, among which we tried the tamal canario, a sweet, fluffy rice flour tamal baked in a corn husk and made with whipped cream and raisins. It was the perfect segue to dessert, which was dulce de zapote. The zapote (sapote in English) is a soft, fleshy, sour, dark orange fruit native to Central America. Alvarez mixed the fruit with orange juice and topped it with whipped cream and rompope, a sweet, thick alcoholic beverage similar to eggnog. A balance of sweet and tart, rich and bracing, it was a simple, yet delectable end to our meal.

Santa María La Ribera might still be finding its way, but Alvarez is clearly at the forefront, priming the way for the neighborhood’s rediscovery, drawing aspiring chefs and hungry customers alike. If he cooks it, they will come.

Ben Herrera

Published on December 10, 2013

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