It’s 9 AM on a Monday morning in Mexico City, where the sprawling metropolis’ hard-working, straightlaced, eternally optimistic office-worker types—referred to pejoratively in Mexican slang as godínez—are already suit-and-tied and installed in their cubicles. Upon arising, these workers likely grabbed a healthy, balanced breakfast; a green juice, say, or a juicy mess of fresh papaya, sliced up, spritzed with lime juice and sprinkled with chile flakes.
But at the corner of Tamaulipas and Alfonso Reyes in the city’s hip, hyper-gentrified Condesa neighbourhood, the scene is comparatively sedate. A group of dead-eyed twentysomethings cluster around a food stall, their movements slow and their conversation muffled, as they await their matinal salvation: the saucy, spicy, alcohol-absorbing carb-on-carb tortas de chilaquiles served up by la Güera herself, Perla Cristina Flores Millan.
“I think they’re all hungover,” Millan admits, with no small amount of affection, as she works at top speed to assemble her made-to-order breakfast sandwich: a split soft roll or bolillo, its doughy insides scooped out to accommodate a quick swipe of refried beans and a heaping scoop of still-steaming chilaquiles, that Mexican brunch classic of fried tortillas soaked in red or green salsa. Christened la Güera, or, well, “whitey” by her customers as a nod to her light skin, Millan is a sassy bleached-blonde 36-year-old woman whose uniform of choice is skin-tight athletic wear and chunky sneakers. She clearly delights in messing around with her regulars, who she’s been saving from la cruda, or “the hangover,” for the past ten years.
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“We joke around,” Millan explains, a wide grin across her face. “If you can’t enjoy your work, it just won’t come out well. You’ve got to do your work with love.”
Millan’s devotion to street food runs in her blood: her family has occupied this same corner for the past 76 years, when her paternal great-grandmother set up a modest stand selling corn masa tamales and sweet, hot atole, a corn drink commonly taken at breakfast.
The current business model, passed down through four generations, is a family affair: Millan and her folks live in the large apartment building above their corner. Like her forebears, La Güera maintains a grueling work schedule, rising at 4 AM each morning to prepare massive quantities of both red and green chilaquiles (she prefers the green, but won’t divulge what’s in either of the sauces—her mother’s recipes are “a family secret,” she says), finishing up the cooking by 6:30 AM. At seven, fresh rolls are fetched by the garbage-bag-full from a local bakery, and by 8 AM, Millan is down on her corner awaiting the inevitable hordes.
Today being a Monday, business is comparatively slow, but Millan explains that on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays—she sets up her stall seven days a week, rain or shine—the late-night partiers show up in full force seeking the restorative powers of her tortas, often lining up from 6:30 AM and waiting patiently for up to two hours. Available with shredded chicken, fried chicken cutlet (milanesa), or cochinita pibil (Yucatán-style barbecued pork), the sandwiches, finished with tangy crema, crumbled queso fresco, and a fiery tangle of pickled onions and habañeros, purportedly help settle the stomach and boost flagging energy levels after a long night of drinking—and they cost only 35 pesos, or a little less than two dollars.
Like her sandwiches, Millan’s workload is anything but light, but fortunately her sister Catalina, her father Jesús and her mother, Rosario, are always on hand to help out. Now 56, Rosario was the jefa, or boss, until about a decade ago, when she finally stepped back from the business to allow Millan to handle the stall’s day-to-day operation. Not only is Rosario the originator of all the recipes; she’s also, in fact, the inventor of the concept of the torta de chilaquil. For while Mexico City is no stranger to carb-on-carb action—the massive guajolota, or tamale served on a roll, is sold by nearly all of the city’s tamal vendors as a cheap and massively satiating breakfast—the sandwich that has reached its apotheosis under La Güera didn’t exist, in her telling, until a few decades ago.
As Millan recounts, the family’s tamale stand did well for a while, but over time, so many tamale vendors set up close by that competition grew too stiff. When Rosario became involved in the business, she shook things up by proposing the chilaquiles sandwich—an idea that locals, at first, didn’t find too palatable.
“‘What—chilaquiles on a roll?’” prospective customers would ask, incredulously, Millan says. “And we would tell them: ‘Try it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay.’”
The rest, as they say, is history: the idea caught on like wildfire, even spawning a few (pale) imitators at cafes around town. Even on a slow day like Monday or Tuesday, La Guera blows through piles and stacks and vats of ingredients. As she runs low, she’ll call up a command to family in the apartment above—“Paula! Bring down some cheese!”—and someone will scurry through the front door bearing a giant tub. Occasionally, too, a package of paper napkins will come sailing down from out of an open window.
Millan’s business is booming—in addition to those who visit her stand, customers also order delivery service through an app called Rappi—but she won’t reveal exactly how many sandwiches she sells daily. The narcos in the city, she explains, have in recent years converted into a classic mafia-type presence, all too eager to extort fees for “protection services” from the most successful street vendors. “Some days I sell many, other days even more,” she says with a wink. And every single day, she sells out.
How could she not? It seems like everyone in Condesa eats here—not just those that are crudeando. “We serve artists, we serve politicians, we serve professionals,” La Guera says. “From the highest classes to the lowest. And we treat everyone just the same.”
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