“My mother had many celebrity customers,” says Luis Enrique Mejía Rosales, the son of Merendero Biarritz’s founder, Esther Rosales. “When they were opening the storefront, the famous [Mexican] bull-fighter Luis Procuna came up to my mother and said, ‘Call it Biarritz!’ He had come back from a tour in Europe and had fallen in love with a woman in Biarritz.”
So, in 1956, when the family opened a storefront on Doctor Velasco Street, they called it Merendero Biarritz. Merendero, because they sold “meriendas,” nighttime snacks.
The restaurant’s founder, Esther, now 82, arrived in Mexico City from the nearby state of Morelos in 1950, when she was just 15 years old. She started working at a food stand that sold chicken soup and tacos dorados, fried tacos, along Cuauhtémoc Avenue in Doctores.
That’s where she met her future husband, Luis Mejía, whose brother ran the stand.
“In 1956, they were removing street stands around the city to start building the indoor markets,” says her son Enrique. “My uncle asked my mother to look for a permanent location.”
Esther Rosales took the helm when they opened the storefront on Doctor Velasco in 1956. Enrique was born four years later, one of two sons. The business stayed in the same location until 1991, when the building was demolished. Biarritz moved across the street, to 156 Doctor Lucio, a squat two-story building on the corner with Doctor Velasco.
This was in the early years of Mexican television, and the business was just blocks away from the offices and studio of Televi-centro, which became Televisa, the Mexican television behemoth.
The celebrities of the era came to eat when they got off the set late at night. Enrique ticks off the Mexican icons who were loyal customers: legendary Televisa journalist Jacobo Zabludovsky, singer Cuco Sánchez, singer and actress María Victoria, and more. And of course, Procuna, the bullfighter who christened the restaurant as Biarritz.
The menu at Biarritz hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. Chicken soup, fried tacos filled with chicken or pork and doused in an avocado-based sauce, and atole, a corn-based hot drink, are still the standbys (although the flavor of the atole depends on the day of the week). Esther added tortas, hot sandwiches served on rolls, to the menu, along with tamales, panqué (pound cake) and milanesa, beef pounded thin, then breaded and fried. They also serve agua de jamaica, hibiscus flower juice.
Previously known as Indianilla or Hidalgo, Doctores is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, officially founded in 1889, but inhabited much earlier. It used to house the train yard for Mexico City’s trolleys, known as the Transvía. Legend has it, chicken soup became the neighborhood specialty because it would stay piping hot for the conductors who finished their shifts late at night, or who arrived to work at dawn.
Now workers from the nearby hospitals – the neighborhood is home to the General Hospital, and its streets are named after famous doctors – and numerous city office buildings and courts, which were constructed due to Doctores’s proximity to the Historic Center, are the ones craving the comfort of chicken soup.
Biarritz opens seven days a week, except for every other Tuesday when they take a day off. From 7 p.m. until 2 a.m., warm, yellow light flows out of the restaurant and on to the sidewalk, where the viene-viene men of the neighborhood park customers’ cars for spare change. Customers pay for their meals and take-out orders at an ancient, teal cash register by the door, which Enrique operates most nights of the week. Esther sits behind the counter. She keeps an eye on her staff, most of whom have worked there for years, and greets neighbors by name.
Biarritz is a place where all kinds of people rub shoulders, sometimes literally at the shared tables.
Long, communal tables, lined with stools, fill the single dining room. A winding bar wraps around the serving area, where big bowls of soup are dished out of giant metal pots.
We arrive early one day to catch a spare moment with Enrique and Esther, but by 9 p.m. the place is packed. Families and couples crowd around the tables, and a line forms for take-out. Servers weave through the tables and stools to deliver steaming bowls of soup. Customers choose the cut of chicken meat – breast, thigh, wing, gizzards, feet, or even the parson’s nose (rabadilla). Onion and chile powder are sprinkled on top, and copious lime juice squeezed in for extra flavor.
“We make all the food at my mother’s place during the day and then bring it here to serve,” Enrique explains. “Our clients have always said that the taste of the food keeps them coming back.”
He’s not exaggerating. A man with a shock of silver hair and wearing a Dodgers bomber jacket says he’s been coming for at least thirty years.
One table over, José Luis and his wife, Mónica, are eating chicken soup and drinking deep-purple hibiscus juice. José Luis says he first came to Biarritz, “When I was still in my mom’s belly.” He has been coming back ever since. Declining to give his age, he says it’s been more than 40 years. The couple lives in southern Mexico City now, but travels an hour north on a regular basis to eat at Biarritz.
We order chicken soup, which comes with rolls and all the fixings: onion, cilantro and green or red chile sauce. The rice and chickpeas soak up the flavorful broth. The not-too-sweet hibiscus juice is refreshingly cool to wash down the hot soup. For dessert, we have a rich and delicious strawberry atole, it being a Tuesday, and a thick slice of pound cake. The servings are generous, and the prices cheap, about 120 pesos, or $6, for an entrée and dessert that will satisfy even the heartiest eaters.
Like many central Mexico City neighborhoods, Doctores suffered a slow decline during the 20th century. After the 1985 earthquake, many residents left neighborhoods like Juárez, Roma and Doctores, which had been devastated. Enrique remembers that in 1985, the neighborhood was a ghost town for weeks after the quake. Parts of the Televisa complex collapsed, killing over 70 people.
“We had a lot of customers from the Prosecutors Office. It collapsed in the quake. A lot of customers left the neighborhood, others were killed,” he says.
Today Doctores has a reputation as a rough neighborhood and lower property values than surrounding areas. However, housing developers have built massive new apartment buildings in recent years, and academics warn that the neighborhood could face rapid gentrification. Doctores, just two blocks from the trendy Roma Norte area, was named this year by a leading online news site as one of the top five neighborhoods in Mexico City for young people to move into.
In 2014, Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera designated a “Special Economic Zone” (ZODE) in Doctores, to expand the complex of government office buildings into a “Administrative City.” Enrique has heard of the plan for Administrative City, but thinks the neighborhood won’t change too quickly, due to problems like lack of parking and abandoned cars on the street (a result of the numerous auto repair shops that line Doctores’s principle avenue, Doctor José María Vértiz).
The earthquakes on September 7 and 19 of this year hit Doctores hard, and three towering apartment buildings down the block from Biarritz were evacuated. Known as the “Soldominiums,” for the amount of sun (or “sol”) they get, the 1960s-era apartment buildings are now cordoned off. Enrique says they had clients from those buildings, and other neighbors plan to move due to the risk of collapse.
Despite the changes in the neighborhood, Biarritz is still a place where all kinds of people rub shoulders, sometimes literally at the shared tables. Enrique is proud of the diverse clientele. He says, “People who are better off don’t mind sitting at the shared table along with everyone else.”
While fewer celebrities come these days, he says politicians and musicians still frequent the restaurant. Esther remembers when the governor of Morelos, the state she migrated from at 15, dined on her chicken soup. “It makes all the hard work worth it,” she says, smiling. After 61 years, her restaurant is still going strong.