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Mexico City officials shuttered this restaurant, but the owners found a way to fight back. And not by paying a bribe

Mexico City officials shuttered this restaurant, but the owners found a way to fight back. And not by paying a bribe
Saqib Keval, left, and Norma Listman prepare a meal at Casa TEO, a Mexico City establishment that is owned by famed chef Enrique Olvera. Keval and Listman's restaurant, Masala y Maiz, was closed by government inspectors. (Ana Lorenzana)

One day last month, Saqib Keval and Norma Listman wandered into a Mexico City cafe to drown their sorrows in a bottle of mezcal. They had just learned that their popular new restaurant, Masala y Maiz, had been shut down by city officials.

For a restaurant such as theirs — big enough to support a handful of staff, but small enough to make the prospect of a legal battle daunting — the closure could be enough to break them. Keval and Listman allege they are victims of a system that restaurateurs in one of the world's great food destinations say is corrupt and vindictive and allows anyone with an ax to grind to shutter businesses.

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But unlike many business owners in the same position, Keval and Listman have cooked up an innovative way to fight back, supported by a new generation of restaurateurs who are willing to speak out against what they believe to be unfair treatment.

The success of Masala y Maiz, which had been open for less than six months when it was shuttered, has been built on dishes that painstakingly blend two cultures. Listman, a native of Texcoco in the state of Mexico, explores the history, flavor and politics of corn, or maiz. The masala, the blend of spices specific to a dish, comes via Keval, whose parents moved to the United States from Ethiopia and Kenya; their ancestors came to East Africa from India 200 years before.

Keval described his and Listman's methodology, which derives as much from their relationship as a couple as it does their experience in the kitchen.

"It's a lot of late-night conversations together, shared memories, and it's a lot of what we know about each other's families. They're very intimate recipes," he said.

Both have activist roots, and when they decided to open Masala y Maiz, they made it a thoroughly community affair, sourcing from local designers, allowing friends to become part-owners and sending out 800 nutritious meals in the aftermath of the Sept. 19 earthquake in central Mexico. Whether their ingredients are fermented, fried or wrapped, they aim for a mestizaje, a blending, of flavors that makes sense in both cultures.

As they finally began to see a modest profit this spring, they watched as inspectors slapped stickers on their door, marking Masala y Maiz closed and banning them from going inside. In the walk-in refrigerator, a thousand dollars' worth of ingredients grew moldy and putrid.

Restaurant owners around the city knew exactly what they were feeling. Gabriela Lopez, who owns and manages Maximo Bistrot, Lalo! and Havre 77 with her husband, chef Eduardo Garcia, remembered when the daughter of the powerful head of Mexico's Profeco, the consumer protection agency, unsuccessfully demanded an outdoor table at Maximo. The woman quickly became a national object of scorn, dubbed "Lady Profeco," when she called in inspectors and tried to shut the place down.

The incident led to years of vigorous and unexpected inspections, Lopez said, but Maximo was featured in newspapers across Mexico and the United States, and on the TV show "Parts Unknown" when Anthony Bourdain came for a visit.

"We got all this publicity we couldn't have gotten any other way," Lopez said.

Lopez was among those Listman turned to in the aftermath of the closure of Masala y Maiz, and Lopez relayed the counsel she'd received in 2013. "You have to be aware that this is the country where we live, and you have to deal with it. Just don't lose your spirit doing it," Lopez told her.

Though it was clear who caused inspectors to descend on Maximo, Listman and Keval couldn't be certain who triggered their closure. But all signs point to an ongoing disagreement with city workers who were using jackhammers on a months-long project outside the door of the restaurant.

As their space filled with noise and dust, deterring customers, Listman tried to negotiate with the workers to use machinery before opening. But when the crew showed up to begin drilling as the restaurant was about to open, Listman and a city worker had a confrontation in the street, though Listman said she tried to be patient and diplomatic.

The inspectors arrived a few days later, claiming that the uso de suelo, or zoning of the property, had irregularities. Listman and Keval dispute the claim. A representative of INVEA, the agency that shut down Masala y Maiz, said it could not comment on ongoing cases.

Given the murky nature of the process, Keval and Listman couldn't be sure where the complaint came from. A city worker? Or maybe the disgruntled customer who racked up a large bill and refused to pay?

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The first lawyer they consulted laid the options out: Pay a bribe, or mordida, and watch the doors magically reopen, or go through the long legal process of fighting the closure. They didn't hire that lawyer.

"Businesses don't think they have the option to not pay a mordida," Listman said. "We know of a lot of well-known restaurants after this happens that are sort of in a constant mordida cycle because they know that [the government] can come and use a scare tactic and just get money. And we are like, 'We are not going to do that.' "

Then other eateries rallied to their defense. The first was Cicatriz Cafe, where Listman and Keval had come to share their heartache after the closure. That night, Scarlett Lindeman, the co-owner and chef, said she'd sell their old-fashioned donuts at the counter and give them all the profits.

"It's a terrifying prospect for small-business owners," Lindeman said. "I don't think I fully understood the climate when I first thought about opening a business here; maybe I still don't."

Soon a movement to serve their food "in exile" spread. Buna, an upscale coffee shop, offered Masala y Maiz doughnut holes and chai tea, with the recipe printed on the window as follows: black tea, spices, unrefined sugar cane and the tears of our corrupt enemies.

At Loup Bar, a natural wine bar, Listman and Keval prepared brunch. At Lalo!, they made fried chicken masala, and at Enrique Olvera's new chef workshop, Casa TEO, they presented a talk on Mexican and Indian migration, and a special meal.

Now, when customers come in to buy a toasted coconut or cinnamon-nutmeg doughnut at Cicatriz, Lindeman said, she uses that as an opening to talk about what happened at Masala y Maiz, and the "real and present threat" to small business in the city.

Karla Roman, the lawyer Listman and Keval eventually hired, said the government does have the right to shut down a restaurant if there is an imminent danger to customers.

"It happens a lot here — in some cases because there is some evidence of a risk," she said. "But in others, like with Masala y Maiz, you say, 'What risk?'"

Listman and Keval hoped that, although the closure had been a financial burden, they'd be able to walk away celebrating the generosity of chefs from near and far.

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Then, on May 3, as they were preparing to present at Casa TEO, they were told the closure would continue due to a different spelling of the street name on legal documents — Gob. Protasio Tagle 66a versus Gobernador Protasio Perez Tagle 66-A.

"I am furious and feel so powerless," Keval said. "This is surreal. A hyphen."

Masala y Maiz would remain closed at least 10 more days, though it could be many more. They continue to wait for word from the city, and hope to reopen next week.

As storm clouds gathered overhead, the phone rang and another silver lining appeared: It was chef Elena Reygadas, owner of the renowned restaurant Rosetta. Perhaps they would collaborate with her, cooking their dish of esquites makai pakka, a marriage of Mexican street corn and a Kenyan dish of corn cooked in coconut milk and spices. Maybe they would remain culinary nomads, carrying their flavors with them.

Tillman is a special correspondent.

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