The little stall run by Raquel Ángeles and her sister Evi on Balderas Avenue in Mexico City looks like any other of the tens of thousands of stands across the capital that serve millions of people every day.
And yet, having eaten at hundreds of these places over the last two decades, we can safely say that the unassuming Antojitos Mexicanos Raquel sits right at the top of our list of go-to spots for a shot of “Vitamina T.”
Most Mexicans have to count every peso, and a single hearty meal often has to serve in place of three squares a day, so, borne of necessity, you get “Vitamina T,” a catchall phrase stemming from the preponderance of “T”-named foods: tortas, tacos, tlayudas, tamales, etc., the staple comfort foods providing high-impact sustenance for minimal economic sacrifice.
We first met Raquel shortly after landing in Mexico in 2000. She worked at a different stand on the same stretch then (she left a year later, in 2001, to run her own spot), and at the time our daily food and drink budget was a measly 25 pesos, good for one liter of orange juice, a fruit salad and one torta, served by the lovely Raquel.
Over time, even with a new job and no reason to pass by the sisters’ stand, we would still get a hankering and have to make a visit. In fact, the tortas prepared at Antojitos Mexicanos Raquel became the gold standard by which all tortas must be judged in our mind.
But wait, there’s more. Raquel’s antojitos – or “little cravings” – cover all the hits: tortas of course, as well as enchiladas, flautas (deep-fried, stuffed “flutes”), pambazos (another kind of sandwich with the roll soaked in a spicy chile guajillo sauce), tacos, quesadillas, huaraches (“sandal”-sized corn tortillas with toppings) and gorditas (large round tortillas, cut open and stuffed).
Portions are ample and prices just right. The enchiladas, at 45 pesos, are the most expensive item on the menu with 20-peso tacos on the low end. And you can add quesillo (Oaxacan cheese) to just about everything for a few pesos more.
The tacos de bistec (skirt steak tacos) are Raquel’s favorites, and she confessed to us on a recent visit that she eats them nearly every day. Skirt steak has a tendency to be sinewy and tough and can be a struggle to bite off clean, the doom of many a taco. Raquel’s bistec, however, is well tenderized and cut into even, thin strips, making it no more difficult to bite into than the accompanying tortilla, which coincidentally is cooked simultaneously with the rest of the dish.
(Word to the wise, a street stand with a big stack of corn tortillas sitting around is usually a red flag. You might end up with a chewy, or worse, a stale wrapper for your taco, which can be a real downer even if you have solid fillings going inside.)
In our experience, the best stalls really nail the basics – fresh ingredients, cooked just the right amount and assembled with care for a filling meal in one go at an unbeatable price. It’s something that requires not only a bit of skill but an active commitment to serving quality food. It’s the love.
The love is what keeps them coming back for more. Raquel guessed her stand churns out roughly 200 meals a day, mainly in the peak comida hours from 1 to 4 p.m. Recently, while waiting for our order during this midday rush, we began chatting with other customers in line. They perked up when they realized we were writing about the spot.
“You like this place?” we asked them, to which they responded with nods and food-muffled, “Son chidos” (They’re cool). One gentlemen told us with a simple smile, “It’s a lot of food and affordable.” Wiping his hands, he added, “The place has a great flavor.”
Antojitos Mexicanos Raquel sits right at the top of our list of go-to spots for a shot of “Vitamina T.”
This raises a pet theory we have about the flattop grills at these types of food stalls. It seems there’s something wonderful that happens to a grill when it’s used to cook food day in and day out for decades, a savory blend of the same ingredients seeping something of their essence into the metal’s microscopic pores.
Somehow, something remains after all is burned away, a certain je ne sais quoi that reacts with every new piece of food that touches it, triggering an olfactory memory that pulls on our heart strings.
This brings us back to the torta. Ours is always quesillo and egg (with a slice of American cheese – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it – if the mood strikes) with the standard avocado, tomato and onion. For our chile, because what is a torta if it doesn’t have a bite, we mix it up, usually the chipotle salsa but sometimes going for rajas en escubeche (a blend of pickled jalapeño and carrot slices). Light snack this is not, so if you aren’t up for a big meal we recommend splitting one with a friend.
We’ve made several attempts to replicate this dish at home, and even with top-notch ingredients, it just isn’t the same. We’ve experimented with different surfaces and heats, but we just can’t quite pull off that perfect costra, that golden brown crust, on the Oaxaca cheese without losing all structural integrity on the scrape.
As we wait, Raquel told us that she and her sister Evi hail from Hidalgo state an hour or so north and west of the city. She got into the food business out of simple economic necessity. She needed to do something, and being from Hidalgo state, “We already know how to make tortillas,” she said. Again, it’s all about the basics.
It’s a pleasure to watch her little team at work (at most we’ve see the stand staffed by Raquel, Evi and one other woman). Their hands are in motion with machine-like efficiency often preparing four or five dishes at once with adept timing to know just when to pour the eggs in time for the meat and cheese to finish simultaneously, and piles of food dot the grill amid assorted corn tortillas of different shapes and sizes.
At peak hours, you might have to wait 10 or 15 minutes while they get to your order, but that’s actually another one of the stand’s perks.
Nearby are some great spots to browse for books, magazine back issues and old LPs. The stalls also neighbor the late 18th-century Ciudadela building – the old city citadel now houses one of the nation’s premier libraries, as well as El Centro de la Imagen, a museum showcasing top-notch photography exhibitions. A visit to either is well worth the time and, perhaps more importantly, gives you a chance to try one of Raquel’s antojitos.