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“People say, when are you going to expand? when are you going to change locations?… never.”

Chef Selene Montero sits at one of the eight tables that comprise her restaurant Malportaco – a play on the word malportado, or “badly behaved” in Spanish. Multicolored ribbons hang from strings attached to the wooden rooftop that covers the sidewalk diners. Around us waiters weave among regulars, handing out Barrilito beers, aguas frescas and Mexico City’s best vegan tacos.

“My goal is for people to taste something here they can’t anywhere else, not because we are particularly badass, but because I have studied a lot about how to get to this point,” says Chef Selene, who started out post-college with a marketing degree that she says made her father happy but no one else, including her.

“My family on my mom’s side has always been very immersed in traditional cuisine. My grandmother was a cooking instructor, so I was very involved in the cuisine of my origins if you want to call it that, from a very young age.”

Still, it took Chef Selene the better part of ten years to gather up all the skills she needed to cook the food she wanted. She received a classic culinary arts education first, before going to the Sierra de Hidalgo for three years to cook with local women there to learn traditional Mexican cuisine. Then she moved to Merida where she took a course in vegan cooking. From there, she moved on to Puebla, then Guadalajara, then Queretaro, and a half a dozen other places, sampling the flavors of her country, cataloging each experience, and every time inevitably finding her way back to her hometown, Mexico City.

In 2016 she was working for a construction company in Mexico City’s financial district to pay her bills but still dreaming of her own culinary adventure. By this time, she had been a vegan herself for seven years and tried vegan food all over the city.

“I would try vegan food and it was horrible. Horrible. It tasted like a shoe. [I thought] why isn’t there the same culinary option for vegans as there are for omnivores? So I gave myself the task of recreating things that I had liked [as a meat eater].”

She went on to perfect her three core recipes – vegan versions of tacos al pastor (traditionally made of layers of thinly sliced marinated pork meat cooked on a revolving spit like shwarma or doner) arrachera (marinated, grilled flank steak), and tongue tacos – all supremely popular in the lexicon of Mexican street food and still the heavy hitters on Malportaco’s menu today. Right about that time she saw a “Help Wanted” sign for a vegetarian cook at a tiny little restaurant in Colonia Narvarte – a cool residential neighborhood often overlooked for its more popular neighbor Colonia Roma. The guy running the restaurant was an accountant, clueless about vegetarian food but anxious to jump on the veganism trend.

“He was literally serving sandwiches with cheese and vegetables when I arrived,” says Selene. With her help they developed a robust veg-heavy menu, but the former 9-to-5er soon got tired of the culinary hustle and told Selene he would be shutting down, and that he owed several months of back rent and utilities to the owner of the building. Selene approached the owner and asked for five months to pay back all that was owed on the space if she could take over the lease. And that she did – working as the chef, waitress, prep cook, publicist, and clean-up crew all at the same time. Now, with a solid staff of 10, she can dedicate herself more fully to what she really loves: creating recipes.

“Right now I am super, super interested not only in flavor but also the chemistry of ingredients, how do they function with this thing or that, and I discovered that with baking… how things interact when they are cooked, frozen, or mixed with different elements. When you taste one of our tacos and think, ‘that’s delicious,’ it doesn’t have anything to do with how we cook it, or even that much in how we season it, but instead how the elements that we are using to create the final product are interacting. I am more and more interested in the origin of products, like I am looking for the way to make my own tortillas, from buying the corn to the nixtalmalization. It sounds like a lot of work, but that work comes through in the flavor, you can taste it in your mouth.”

And it’s there – in the perfectly seasoned soy arrachera, the oregano-laced mushroom menudo (a soup whose original version is made of cow’s stomach), and the placero taco’s delicate slice of fresh avocado layered atop chicharrón made of wheat instead of pork skin. Each dish obsessively tested, retested, and retested again to make sure that the seasonings and texture are just right and yet… vegetables can still be tricky she says.

“It’s constant work, especially with dishes that are 100 percent vegetables. It’s not like you have a recipe with weights and measurements and every time it comes out the same, like what you can do with meat. With this you have to consider what time of the year is it, if it rained a lot, if there’s been a drought. You have to try the mushrooms raw, and see exactly what state the garlic is in, and how the oregano arrived, taste each of the elements so that it turns out exactly how it should.”

How it turns out is some of the best vegan food in the city, in an intimate setting that attracts not only vegans but demanding palates from all points on the culinary spectrum. Diners linger over squash blossom enchiladas and Oaxcan mezcal made special for the restaurant, chill music plays in the background and a line is forming for to go outside the kitchen window.

“There is simply another way of eating, there is another way of enjoying ingredients – just because you are vegan doesn’t mean you have no taste buds. [Sometimes] we get accustomed to bad things and eat them because it’s what’s available. I love what I do so much that to sit down and to try a bowl [of something] that’s super beautiful and Instagrammable but tastes of nothing is enraging.

My interest was never to have a massive place or a super commercial place, and I think that’s why the food here tastes so special, because my true interest, my true passion, is the kitchen. I like to eat and I like to cook.”

Andrew Reiner

Published on January 10, 2023

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