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In recent years, downtown Mexico City’s once grimy Centro Histórico has undergone a remarkable transformation. The government and private enterprises have invested in new infrastructure, pedestrian walkways, parks, hotels and high-end apartment buildings that give the area the look and feel of a district that is part of a modern, dynamic capital city.

Yet no matter how much the Centro Histórico gets remade, some things – like its 400-year-old buildings – remain virtually unchanged. One of these timeless spots is the restaurant Gran Cocina Mi Fonda on Calle López, run by Jesús Santos, now in his seventies, who immigrated to Mexico from Spain years ago as a newlywed. Over the decades since, his restaurant has become synonymous with the winning paella recipe brought over by Santos’s mother-in-law from Valencia, Spain.

“Why change something that is not broken?” Santos remarked when we asked if the most famous dish served at Gran Cocina Mi Fonda has ever changed. “I have great respect for my mother-in-law. After all this time, she is still in charge of the food and the restaurant. I’m just another employee here,” he quipped modestly. Even though Isabel, Jesús’s mother-in-law, wasn’t at the restaurant at the time of our visit, we bore witness to the truth of Santos’s words. The mix of Spanish and Mexican dishes written down on a blackboard on the wall was undoubtedly the product of a great cook, and the fact that the same food has been served at the same location for decades is proof of customer satisfaction.

But Jesús is much more than just the restaurant’s owner; he has managed and been the face of the business for some 47 years, during which time Gran Cocina Mi Fonda has become known throughout Mexico City for its great paella. The food is consistently good, but perhaps even more important, Jesús’s personality is so magnetic that customers come just to see and talk to him. Diners, neighbors and people from all over the world who have seen his picture or read his story in newspapers, magazines and restaurant guides recognize him immediately. “People come here all the time asking if I’m Jesús Santos. Then they tell me they read about the restaurant in some magazine. Just the other day an American guy – Bourdain, I believe his name was – came through with a camera crew and ate here. I was on TV!”

In comparison to other fondas that offer only two or three main dishes a day, the repertoire at Mi Fonda is large. There is always the paella Valenciana; two or three other Spanish dishes, such as potaje de lentejas (lentil soup) or lengua estofada (stewed tongue); and several Mexican dishes, like filete de pescado (fillet of fish) or milanesa (a thin steak) with salad. To start with, we ordered the Spanish albóndigas (meatballs) and were not disappointed. The tomato sauce the meatballs were swimming in was rich and the potatoes that came with them were perfectly cooked and flavorful. The meatballs themselves were packed with what one of our dining companions characterized as “European” flavors, seasoned with black pepper, nutmeg and lots of garlic and parsley – flavors not typically found in Mexican-style meatballs.

We then turned out attention to the paella Valenciana, the dish that has made the place famous, and found that it lived up to its reputation. The rice was perfectly cooked and seasoned. The saffron that gave the dish its yellow color and distinctive flavor wasn’t overpowering, and brought together the flavors of the mussels, chicken and pork perfectly. We could well understand why the recipe hasn’t been changed in half a century.

On the day of our visit, we arrived at an early hour in order to avoid the lunchtime rush, but in a manner of minutes the place got busy with happy eaters engaged in casual conversation and enjoying different dishes from the menu. A line of people waiting to be seated at one of the small venue’s few tables quickly formed outside the door. In Mexico it’s typical for customers who are in a hurry to share a table with strangers at fondas, and Mi Fonda is no exception; indeed, regular diners here seem to welcome the practice. “I try to come here about three or four times a month,” our tablemate told us, as he tucked into a big plate of chicken mole. “I love the mole here. It’s sweet and not spicy at all. But I also come here for the paella, the meatballs and the chiles rellenos.”

As we ate, Jesús told us he feels he and his family have been blessed for the whole time they’ve had the restaurant. “Dios protege a los inocentes” (“God protects the innocent”), he said, repeating a phrase he is often quoted in magazines as saying. As we took our leave, we thought about how true these words are for Jesús and his family. Serving the same food for many years in a neighborhood that is always changing is indeed a blessing.

This review was originally published on July 29, 2013, and has been updated with a new video.

Ben Herrera and PJ Rountree

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