In the tale of Don Lázaro El Viajero, a Spanish Jew named Lázaro L. Torra, escaping the fascist advance in that nation’s civil war, fled in 1939 to Mexico City – one of tens of thousands that then-President Lázaro Cárdenas invited to find refuge in Mexico amid the black conflict of that war. By 1944 Torra had become something of a restaurateur/maestro, teaching kids in a kinda-working-class, kinda-middle-class neighborhood to speak in English and improve their Spanish and feeding them some decent grub in the same go. (The name of the restaurant, Mr. Lazarus the Traveler, has to do with its proximity to a road heading out of town before the city went all crazy huge and viral.) That was the deal. You got food, but you had to learn something in the process.
Now and always, it offers homey, delicious food and a great story, even if it’s a bit overpriced. Lined up inside and out are placards that reflect didactic days when local kids scraped to glue themselves to chalkboards. The tables are decoupaged with newspaper clips to tell the restaurant’s story to every visitor. One wall lists a bunch of names of women and men Torra helped to educate, and plaques all over illuminate the methods with which the maestro taught young people to get their point across in Spanish and English. For example: Consigame el dinero – “Get me that money” is phoneticized to “guet mi dát máni.” It’s a skillful, if unorthodox, approach.
Lectures aside, the menu is all traditional: chicken, kissable beef and plain soup dishes. One has to appreciate the basics. For instance, the no-charge openers. Hot, fresh corn tortillas and onions. Totopos for real – that’s oil-fried chips to newbies. Then we have beans (we’re sure they had to have some kind of animal product in them) and chile. It took effort to resist eating them all. The set came with a typical tomato-based red sauce and another sweeter sauce that the server refuses to elaborate on, but we detected some kind of fruit. And we love how the place rushes out with an adult-sized bib on the first spill of food.
The food is more than decent, but the ambiance is what works. It’s worth pointing out some of the pearls of wisdom posted on the wall, such as: “By the end of the century [the 20th], 500 million beings will speak [Castellano] Spanish and a billion will speak English. Having command of these two languages will no doubt be the master keys to the future.”
Sitting down here encourages one to forget the role tongues like Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic and Russian already have in our world. However, after your first vodka and freebie taco, you want to believe.
Clearly, Torra wasn’t an idiot. He saw something. He saw the value in investing in our improvised homelands. He saw the value in education, even without a profit. And the intersection was food — the thing we all need regardless of race, orientation, gender, creed or color.
We went there on a Saturday afternoon, and maybe the place gets busy sometimes, but that day we had lightning-fast service. We ordered a “house favorite” chile relleno, which was stuffed to the gills with baked Oaxaca (string) cheese and doused with a classic umami-rich, tomato-based red sauce, effectively accented with plantain and apple. Our friend asked for another menu special, the nopaleada, which was thin-cut beef steak, or Tampiqueña, served with diced fresh cheese on short, stewed cactus bits with a tiny green salad, beans (or rice) and wedge fries.
The place is a little out of the way, reflecting the nature of the beast here in Mexico City, but it’s worth the taxi ride if only to eat some down-home classic cooking.
One has to value a champion of eating and education. To quote the wall, “To participate in this homework is to support Mexico.” Right on.
This article was originally published on April 8, 2015.