Sanborns is a restaurant chain seen through urban Mexico. You will find them, as you will McDonald’s, in new buildings made to order and in the old ones as well. There is a splendid old building downtown, east of the palace of fine arts a block, south a block from another Sanborns that takes up another whole building, and located in the house of tiles–so called because the face of it has tiles. In the center of Mexico City you can just about find a Sanborns on every other block nowadays, and it is no wonder.
Besides being a restaurant, Sanborns is a mini department store. To get into the restaurants you usually have to navigate through the department store and the people buying. And the ever busy and solicitous employees. I think half the population of Mexico works at Sanborns. The cuisine in the restaurant is Mexican, of course, with specials from various regions cropping up.
The great challenge in describing Mexican food to Americans is the American concept of Mexican food perpetuated by that which is served to them as such in the USA. Let me suggest something of the difference by saying that the food served as Mexican in the USA is more about quantity, though it be more abundant in Mexico. Mexicans have an infinite variety of peppers and the sauces they derive from them. I have never yet encountered a dish here that included rice (though they exist), and while beans of course are an abundant part of the cuisine, they are by no means as monotonous or quite as ubiquitous down here. Mexico is a great vast country, and its various regions eat differently. One of the reasons I wanted to bring Katrina to the capital is that we have been in the north and the food is quite another. The jungle cuisine is different from the coastal and that different from the desert and that different from the highlands. One laments the expansionism of President Polk of old who reduced the Mexican territories by more than half and so limited the range of their cuisine. What have we reaped from that aggression? Better roads and more McDonald’s and Taco Bells and illegal immigrants to run our bad cuisine, and Doritos, alas!
I want to opine that Mexican food in Mexico City is humane, as Mexican food in the USA is not. It has a tradition, it has form, it has variety, it has established means, subtlety as well. It is rich, it is storied, it is in short a conservative cuisine. It has old roots, and old routes as well, and a popular base, for the folk eat flavorsomely, and the humble tortilla and all its derivatives comes not from the upper classes. What I want in the food I eat is a sense of cooking which has been valid, not organic kale; something that can be expected to be what it purports, not merely photogenic; something not simply expedient, but instead unpretentiously what it always has been through honest labor, before the gadgets and gimcrack cuisine of machines and the unnatural desires of fads.
And when this unambitious, humane cooking has its proper surroundings: no artificial music but the sounds of people’s conversations and of a fountain, the columns, the distant elaborate ceilings, the wrought lamps, the carved wood, the padded leather, the gracious stairs, the marble tile or parquet floors, the cloth napkins and placemats, the unostentatious–nay humble–silverware, the blue patterned crockery, the glass and the unaffected and solicitous service, when it has this, then what could one want more? It is not upscale, it is not trendy, it is not innovative, you can even get frosted flakes if that’s what you’d rather have, though the whole rest of the menu argues against it. I’m not talking about some stupid cult of simplicity–plain simple fare, homespun, blah blah blah, no indeed. But I am talking about a restaurant that knows what it is and does it honestly.
Sanborns actually apparently began in the house of tiles (built in the 17th Century and then house of the Counts of the vale of Orizaba for centuries). It was the first soda fountain in Mexico, begun with the Sanborn Hnos S.A. in 1907. A restaurant that has gone from strength to strength for over one hundred years can claim to be a place where the cuisine has been valid. Something of that is still retained, with the long counter that can seat about 50, and a counter in most of its downtown restaurants. I suppose when men cease to drink milkshakes, Sanborns will be threatened, or coffee. But till then . . . it has survived the tobacco ban and is vying to monopolize all polite, sensible eating in downtown Mexico City.
I will say the coffee is inferior, alas. But there are other things polite persons can drink, and all the fruit drinks are fresh. I am not sure all the world will find the place quite what I do, people’s tastes being so distorted from that which is true, but I can say that Sanborns in Mexico is at no loss for steady abundant sensible patronage.