The name of a food stall followed by “del Carmen Alto” has a particular ring in Oaxaca, calling to mind a whole world of stands, all of which are located in the two blocks facing the church La Iglesia del Carmen Alto, in the heart of the city’s historic center.
It’s not entirely clear why El Carmen Alto is a street-food hub, but it’s probably related to the fact that, back in the 1970s, the Plaza del Carmen used to host a weekly open-air market where people from all over the Oaxaca Valley would bring their produce. This market turned out to be so popular that it eventually moved into a permanent building, named Mercado Sánchez Pascuas, where it still operates today.
One of the many stalls to grace this area is Tacos de Cazuela del Carmen Alto, which is located on the corner of Quetzalcoatl and García Vigil. For over 16 years, Reyna Santiago has been wheeling her picturesque stand over to the corner from its nearby parking spot, always occupying the same real estate, and working with two other fiercely sweet women, both family, to feed people from all walks of life.
Reyna’s Tacos de Cazuela del Carmen Alto has gained a loyal following over the years, despite the fact that it’s often confused with Tradicionales Tacos del Carmen, which is right across from the church. “We know we are not unique, but as our slogan says: ‘We are not the only ones but we are the tastiest,’” says Reyna Santiago’s daughter Reyna Susana Morales, who also works at the stand.
After eating our way through their menu over countless meals, we can confirm that Reyna Susana’s confidence is warranted. The tacos come in all flavors and are complemented by different salsas, beans and guacamole, all held together with Reyna Susana’s handmade tortillas, made al momento.
The main difference between Tradicionales Tacos del Carmen and Tacos de Cazuela del Carmen Alto (or Tacos de Cazuela de las Reynas, as friends and regulars like to call it) resides in the fillings: Reyna focuses on homemade stews rather than classic Oaxacan flavors like plain chorizo, squash blossoms, mole or chile relleno. “I offer all sorts of stews and fillings so people can have either breakfast or lunch here. A lot of my clients are office workers that expect more variety throughout the week. From the very beginning I conceived of my stall as a ‘food on the go’ one: satisfying, good price, easy to eat and carry,” Reyna explains.
While Reyna’s tacos remind us of the tacos de guisado that are popular in Mexico City, they are unmistakably Oaxacan thanks to the handmade tortillas made with nixtamalized organic corn, the bean paste with avocado leaf and the salsas made with local varieties of chiles, such as chile de árbol and chile morita. “Handmade tortillas were not a part of the stall at first, but then I realized that the food tasted better [with handmade tortillas] and people enjoyed watching them being made to order. They know you cannot get any better than this,” Reyna Susana explains.
On our many visits we’ve tasted a wide variety of fillings: green beans with scrambled eggs, tasajo (thin beef steak), chicharrón pork skin with tomato stew, choriqueso (cheese and chorizo), potatoes with chorizo, beef liver with onions, potatoes with poblano chile strips and pork rib with guajillo salsa (the stand’s top seller, this is usually the special on Mondays and Fridays). In addition, Reyna also offers tortas (sandwiches), memelas and salsa de huevo, which is a scrambled egg bathed in tomato salsa and spices, all of which are perfect for breakfast.
“I offer all sorts of stews and fillings so people can have either breakfast or lunch here.”
Every single detail at Tacos de Cazuela del Carmen Alto is well thought out and designed with purpose by Reyna. “The permit for this stall belonged to my aunt’s fruit stall, then she sold it to me and I painted her stall, put a couple of front wheels and transformed it into one selling food. That is all I wanted to do: cook and sell the food I knew people would buy,” she tells us.
Her clear read on what foods are in demand might be due to her experience as head cook in a workers’ canteen at the corporate office of a supermarket chain. “I learned to design menus and cook smartly, making sure the workers were well fed but also enjoyed the food. Now I do it with my clients too, I hear them all, the locals and the foreigners. If they let me know in advance that they are coming, I even reserve portions of whatever I have that they like,” Reyna says.
Reyna’s drive and resilient disposition are also evident in her daughter Reyna Susana and her niece Nancy Venegas. The former joined her mother five years ago, while the latter became part of the team two years ago. Together, they can feed around 80 people every day of the week, from meat lovers to vegetarians. “We have vegetarian options too, a lot of our clients have started asking for lighter fillings. Adapting to the demand is what keeps us going,” adds Nancy.
For all the challenges that the pandemic has brought, Tacos de Cazuela del Carmen Alto has managed to stay up and running, except for the four-month lockdown imposed by the Mexican government. Soon after they were given the official go-ahead, they reopened the stall. “We have been here in the pouring rain, after earthquakes. This situation will not stop us. We will be here against all odds, because our clients enjoy our food as much as we enjoy seeing them,” asserts Reyna Susana while placing a perfectly round tortilla on the comal.
While their consistency and hard work is admirable, the truth is that business has been down. A large percentage of Reyna’s clients come from nearby offices, and since many of them still haven’t been summoned back to work, the stand is selling around 40 percent less than before the pandemic. On top of that, given the current Covid-19 situation in town, the city government has warned all vendors that in the following weeks they might only be able to sell takeaway food.
The stall already offers takeaway and has done so for a while, although it was more common for clients to stay and eat their tacos at the stand. “We are also considering using food delivery apps, like Didi Food or other local ones. We are not afraid to use other platforms if this means stepping up to what the current situation demands,” Reyna says. But her big, bright eyes show, for the first time, a sense of real concern. “We have removed our stools to discourage small crowds and are following every measure, from wearing masks while we cook and serve, to having alcohol, anti-bacterial gel, soap and water. We even put this plastic screen between us and the clients so everyone is protected: us, the food, the clients. If we look after them, they will look after us.”
Their empathetic yet logical approach strikes us as a winning formula, although their success also depends on the cooperation and carefulness of their clients. But most are willing to comply – the women’s serenity creates an attractive bubble where concerns about the pandemic are put aside and everything becomes about nurturing ourselves. And although they’re preparing less food and have temporarily narrowed down the menu, the good news is that Reyna decided to serve the special pork ribs with guajillo chile not only on Mondays and Fridays, but every day. “Well, we must try to find an oasis amid all this chaos, if my ribs are that oasis, so shall it be,” says Reyna with her dreamy eyes, as dreamy as her food, a jewel of the crown that we can’t let the pandemic take away from us.
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