The Keepers of Tradition

El Bajio

El Bajio

Penny de Los Santos

I vividly recall the first time my father took me to lunch at El Bajío in the working-class Mexico City neighborhood of Azcapotzalco back in the late 1970s. There was the smell of fresh tortillas hitting the griddle and the sound of cleavers chopping meat on thick wooden boards as I feasted on a soulful dish of mole de olla—a guajillo chile broth bathing juicy hunks of pork espinazo (backbone) and thick slices of zucchini. I can still see the chile-red stains left on my fingers from picking the tender meat off the bones.

Fast-forward to 2013: After wolfing down a piquant bowl of chicharrón en salsa verde (pork crackling in green sauce), I track down El Bajío's owner, Carmen "Titita" Ramírez Degollado, to offer my praise. Ramírez Degollado, who founded the restaurant with her husband 40 years ago, says the credit is entirely due to her kitchen's mayoras.

She introduces me to Sandra Olvera, who runs the back of the house with a combination of resolute kindness and clear instruction. She is the chief mayora, a position that exists only in Mexico. It dates back to the 18th century, when women ran the staff kitchens in haciendas, which were usually plantations or factories. Like any good mayora, Olvera was raised alongside the stoves. "El Bajèo was my school, my first job, and probably my last one," she says.

Olvera's co-chef, Elia Rodríguez Bravo, puts the final touches on a fragrant pot of rice as half a dozen women in white dresses and head kerchiefs attend to bubbling pots of black beans and stews like the chicharrón en salsa verde I enjoyed earlier. "No shortcuts, no bouillon cubes, none of that. Just hands with sazón," Rodríguez Bravo assures me; the sazón, or "secret touch" that cooks have, is the pride of a true mayora.

With an undying devotion to authenticity and regional flavors, Ramírez Degollado and her mayoras serve some of the best traditional Mexican dishes in the city. "People come here to eat something they know," she tells me, "something they have loved for years—that's what we give them."

When Ramírez Degollado and a group of investors started an ambitious expansion, which has so far placed ten branches of El Bajío around the city, I worried for my childhood favorite restaurant. She now works with an executive chef, Josep Rivera—a Spaniard and, even more surprising, a man—who oversees operations for all the El Bajío restaurants. Still, it's the mayoras who continue to uphold the traditions they've spent lifetimes mastering. I'm skeptical about this, at least until my wife and two kids join me for lunch at the Polanco branch. Here, I watch my seven-year-old twin boys gobble up puffy black bean—filled gorditas infladas and order a deep bowl of mole de olla for myself. As my fingers stain red, I'm comforted to know some things never change.