For the most part, Mexico City pampers its citizens with year-round warm, sunny weather, give or take the occasional downpour in the rainy season. And like any spoiled child, chilangos have grown so accustomed to living in such a temperate clime that any slight deviation registers as almost unbearable.
At 19 degrees C, pedestrians cloak themselves in winter coats and hurry down the sidewalk, worrying that they will freeze to death on the two-block walk from their parked car to their front door. It’s rumored that chilangos are so unused to seeing their own breath in the cold that they mistake it for their souls escaping their bodies, augmenting their hatred of frigid weather.
So it’s strange to see a group of them huddled around a table, willingly enduring the cold. Especially those who’ve sought it out. Yet that is the sight at Lety, one of a dozen restaurants at the base of Desierto de los Leones, a mountainous national park located entirely within the city limits of Mexico City. Wearing stylish scarves, beanies, knit gloves, vests and sweaters, Saturday morning customers crowd near the back, closer to the delicious heat and smells emanating from the grill.
Prior to any food arriving, waitresses serve hot coffee in traditional orange ceramic mugs. Instead of sugar, the coffee is sweetened with piloncillo, an unrefined whole cane sugar popular throughout much of Latin America with a subtler sweetness than that of conventional refined sugar.
Next, the waitresses carefully place soup on the tables, warning customers not to taste immediately lest they burn their tongues. The mushroom soup, sopa de hongos, of Desierto de los Leones is famous in Mexico City, and upon tasting it, one understands why. The high quality of the ingredients is obvious, the chanterelles and the onions fresh, the broth well spiced. However, one of the waitresses, Grisela Vargas, admitted to me that many chilangos who make weekend trips to eat the soup falsely believe that the cooks harvest the mushrooms on the forested mountainside towering over Lety. “We don’t tell them they’re harvested here,” she said. “We also don’t tell them they’re not harvested here.”
Finally come the freshly fried quesadillas, blue tortillas stuffed with melting Oaxacan cheese, kernels of boiled corn, lightly grilled onion and huitlacoche. The last ingredient is the result of a bacteria transforming corn kernels into a protein-rich and subtly flavored fungus that looks and tastes more like mushrooms than corn. Huitlacoche owes its name and preparation to pre-Columbian times and is served in everything from omelettes to tacos. However, the restaurants at the base of the mountain serve the most delicious incarnation of the food, huitlacoche quesadillas, where the bitter flavor of the fungus is complimented by the natural sweetness of the blue corn tortillas and the dripping cheese.
Lydias Iglesias has watched customers come back to the Lety time and time again since she was a child. The restaurant was opened in 1955 by her grandmother and passed down to her mother and sister before she took over. “On Fridays at lunch, they come from all over the city to eat here,” Iglesias told me. Regulars arrive from nearby Contadero, the ultra-exclusive neighborhood that houses the wealthiest Mexicans in the country, including Carlos Slim, occasionally the richest man in the world. They come from the bottom of the mountain in Santa Fe, Mexico City’s bustling business hub. Customers even come from downtown D.F., which is no small feat considering the hours-long drive in traffic one should expect if planning to visit Desierto de los Leones on a weekday.
A few hundred meters from Lety’s sits a convent, which dates back to 1606. Visitors may explore the old concrete structures, now a museum, should they yearn for an even colder and damper setting. Although the name of the Mexico’s first national park literally translates to “Desert of the Lions,” the park is not arid nor do felines roam. Instead, the Leones were a wealthy family from the area that patronized the convent, while the “desert” refers to the historical scarcity of human activity on the mountain. Pine trees and other alpine foliage cover the mountain, which rises 3,700 meters above sea level, making for a beautiful, difficult hike. Perhaps the best part of the hike is knowing that after hours of alternately shivering, sweating and gasping through the cold, high-altitude air, Lety sits at the bottom of the trail, ready to reward you with its ethereal soup and quesadillas.
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