by Michael Snyder

Michael Snyder is a freelance journalist focused on food, architecture and culture. His work has appeared in T Magazine, the New York Times, The Believer, the LA Times, Food & Wine, Saveur and Lucky Peach, among others.

The best food in Colonia Roma – arguably in all of the Delegación Cuauhtémoc – comes out of a chaotic kitchen built from volcanic stone with three burners and a single comal and not so much as a curtain or half-wall, much less a door, to separate it from the street. Glass bottles and garafones of Cupreata brought in from the state of Guerrero cluster on the floor like long-necked lemurs next to piles of fruit and a jug of tejuiino fermenting now for well over a year, ever since this nameless non-restaurant, known as Expendio de Maíz, opened alongside its sister restaurant, the perennially packed El Parnita, the restaurant that, even a decade after opening, remains the most Roma place in Roma.  

Photos from Felipe Luna

On my most recent visit to Expendio, I told the chef and founder Jesús Salas, to serve me anything he liked, whatever he was excited to eat just then.

Over the next two hours I ate a taco of nixtamalized corn kernels, an enchilada de plátano con mole blanco fragrant with garlic and the buttery lilt of pepitas; I ate a taco of quinitonil and strawberries, sweet and sour and vegetal; a gordita that Salas learned to make at a street stand in Puebla, doused in an acidic salsa de jitomate, another salsa sweetened with piloncillo, and a seam of crema fresca, rich and cool over the gordita’s crisp exterior. Some dishes were traditional, others Salas’ own interpretation of flavors he’s encountered over years eating around the country, and particularly in the kithens of the Costa Chica, where he grew up. But even those dishes that Salas invented tasted ancient, as though they must surely exist in some remote village in the mountains, whether or not any outsider has ever tasted them before. The food is dazzling and elemental, as technically sophisticated as anything coming out of the kitchens of Polanco’s fine-dining emporia, but richer and more generous, more satisfying, more joyful. 

I’ve gone to Expendio at least a dozen times, stopping by whenever I can, and still the variety and beauty of Salas’s food never ceases to surprise me with its diversity and depth of flavor: tortillas that taste of corn and huitlacoches that, rather than just lending a gorgeous inky stain to a quesadilla, are also quick with bright, fungal acidity, simultaneously earthy and herbaceous. In those first months I would sit at the edge of Salas’s kitchen and wonder if the crowds waiting for a seat next door knew what they were missing. Now I watch plates of mole de queso and mole de platano fly off the comal and onto the crowded wooden tables at El Parnita, often carried in proudly Paulino Martínez Acra, who founded El Parnita with his siblings and mother a decade earlier.

The story of El Parnita and Expendio de Maíz

The stories of Parnita and Expendio, both began around the same time, El Parnita in 2008 as a puesto in la Del Valle, which survived for a month, and Expendio in 2009 as a stall in Mercado el 100 dedicated to products brought in from Guerrero’s Costa Chica, which Salas refers to simply as mi tierra. As El Parnita expanded, more than doubling the size of its dining room and opening an even sexier upstairs space called Páramo, Roma’s dining options exploded (in quantity if not necessarily in quality). El Parnita became what Martínez had wanted it to be from the beginning: a perpetual block party, a place for good conversation over good food and good drink, a cultural and community center built around eating, a family place not only in the sense of family-owned, but also a place to invent and nurture a family of your own choosing.

Opening Expendio 18 months ago has added a dimension of investigation and invention to the Parnita family, a space for exploration and experimentation and revalorization of traditions that have all but disappeared not only in la Roma, but throughout the city and, increasingly, throughout the country. Like El Parnita Expendio is unpretentious, a place for conversations, though here they’re more likely to be guided by the food itself toward questions of what a better world might look, smell or taste like. Parnita proved that you can invent family in the course of a single meal. Once you’ve invented family, you can invent anything.