Without Social Media, This Astonishing Restaurant Remains Under the Radar
A beloved chef returned to Oaxaca to cook with his family: Alfonsina is a celebration of homecoming
On a dirt road a few miles from the Oaxaca City airport, the prodigal son has come home. A little more than a year ago, Jorge Leon left his position at Mexico City’s most celebrated restaurant, Pujol, to move back to his neighborhood of San Juan Bautista la Raya and cook with his mother, Elvia Leon Hernández, and his three siblings. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision; Jorge had saved up for the new kitchen, dining room, and bar he envisioned.
“We spent years making it little by little. At a certain point, I didn’t know how long it would take, and I decided I had to go back and push it forward,” Jorge said. At Pujol, he was in charge of the restaurant’s most famous dish — its mole — and was given the same nickname. “Being from Oaxaca, you grow up with an appreciation for a good tortilla, good meat, salsa, chocolate, mole. When you move away, the first thing that you miss is good food.”
“Being from Oaxaca, you grow up with an appreciation for a good tortilla, good meat, salsa, chocolate, mole. When you move away, the first thing that you miss is good food.”
Part of what makes Alfonsina special is that it doesn’t feel like it’s new. It’s not a jewel of modern design or an impressionistic fantasy of rustic décor. It’s a real home, and before Jorge returned, it was already operating as a restaurant.
For 15 years, Elvia sold food out of her kitchen and tortillas from her comal. The endeavor they’ve embarked upon as a family is a marriage of her former business, a comida corrida spot where neighbors and factory workers have long come for a midday meal, and Jorge’s experience in high-end kitchens. Elvia continues making the hearty comida corrida, which is an affordable, set-price menu of an appetizer and main dish, and often includes an agua fresca or dessert. Jorge meanwhile serves a five-course tasting menu inspired by the day’s offerings at the market, most often what the tourists from Mexico and abroad come by taxi to try.
“I came to compliment what my mother was doing, to reinforce it. Local people still come to eat her food. And now people come to have the tasting menu. We reinterpret flavors that have always been here,” Jorge said.
At the end of 2018, when Alfonsina was just two months old, New Worlder chose it as restaurant of the year. A year later, it still lacks a website, Facebook page, or Instagram (though Jorge’s has an Instagram account here). And while that lends a bit of drama to the act of locating Alfonsina — even a veteran Oaxaca cab driver has probably never found himself on this particular dirt road — Jorge plans to hire a social media manager and create a proper virtual presence.
At the end of 2018, when Alfonsina was just two months old, New Worlder chose it as restaurant of the year. A year later, it still lacks a website, Facebook page, or Instagram.
Jorge and Elvia both learned to cook by necessity. Jorge started out looking for work as a dishwasher and ascended through the kitchen of Casa Oaxaca. Elvia was 7 years old when her mother, Alfonsina, passed away. As the oldest girl among six siblings, she had to feed everyone. That meant using a hand-crank grinder to turn their corn into masa and then into tortillas. Her grandmother taught her to cook guisados and traditional Mixtec dishes.
“More than anything, it was the school of life,” Elvia said.
When Elvia married and she had Jorge, the young family moved to Oaxaca City in the pursuit of staying together.
“In our town, the men had to migrate to the United States, they had to go work so that the women could have some income,” Elvia said. “Maybe we would have chosen that, but my father wanted us to move to Oaxaca City.” The decision ensured they could remain a family unit. When they got to the city, a few hours from Elvia’s village, she said cooking helped her feel at ease in her new home.
“I liked it here because I could do everything — I could cook everything the same way I did in my town. I cooked, I nixtamalized the corn, everything.” Nixtamalization — the process of treating corn with lime before grinding it to allow the body to absorb more nutrients after it is cooked — is no longer common in the age of industrialized tortilla production. Elvia, who many people have remarked makes the best tortillas they’ve ever had, continued to send for the corn that her sister’s family grows back in their village of Santo Domingo Nundo, along with beef, meat, avocados, and pitihayas. The comal, where Elvia presses and cooks tortillas, is the hearth and focal point of Alfonsina. Outside, there are tables and chairs, a few well-loved cookbooks from Mexico City celebrity chefs like Elena Reygadas and Enrique Olvera, a tricycle, chickens roaming around, and a pile of firewood for the comal.
Jorge is still making changes to Alfonsina: now, a sign. Later, a bar and a terrace. But Jorge and Elvia are loyal to their local customers, and they vow to always have comida corrida at an affordable price point, alongside the more expensive products that Jorge includes in the tasting menu. They are following the golden rule: preparing food that they’d like to eat, day in and day out, in exactly the place they want to be, and offering that up to anyone who’d like to sit at their table.
“Best of” designations are hopelessly subjective. They raise your expectations sky high, and then the food comes, or a pretentious server makes you feel not quite welcome, and expectations fall back to earth and shatter. But even knowing that Alfonsina is among them— the worldwide restaurant of the year — I traveled there, ate, and left satisfied. There’s no better review than that.