One of the really nice things about living in Mexico is that if you like local cuisine you can eat out frequently without spending a lot of money. There is plenty of delicious food available at reasonable prices for those who know where to look. The institution of the cocina economica, budget restaurants which provide low-priced, home-cooked meals, is common throughout the country. This food ranges to excellent quality, but at the price of 25 to 50 pesos per serving (roughly two to four U.S. dollars), it's not fancy.
I enjoy eating out daily, so I have become fairly proficient at finding good food for few pesos, even when in unfamiliar areas. The general rule for finding tasty, economical food is to go to working-class neighborhoods away from high-rent districts and tourist zones.
However occasionally I find an affordable eating place that bends the rule. One of those is El Rojo, in Querétaro. I visit Querétaro fairly often, and over the past couple of years this tiny restaurant has become my very favorite budget eating place in all of Mexico.
El Rojo is a real "hole-in-the-wall," just a niche behind a door in an ancient wall, with about ten tables inside. It is located in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the centro historico, just steps from one of Querétaro's most-loved parks. Nearby are many high-profile eating establishments that charge several times the price yet may not surpass the creativity and quality of the cuisine at El Rojo.
The menu features regional fare along with Italian and Japanese dishes. The interesting part comes when the chef occasionally mixes ingredients and styles of the various cuisines.
On a recent visit, I started with a wonderful cream of chile poblano (pictured above) garnished with drops of cream and black seeds. The main dish was a pepper-style beef, served with refried beans and rice, and a salad of cucumber, carrot and tomato on a bed of lettuce, sprinkled with a very Japanese sesame-ginger dressing. This was accompanied by fresh handmade tortillas and washed down with an endlessly-refilled glass of fresh melon water. It was a satisfying and delicious meal.
This is a family business. The young chef, Aaron Saavedra, is assisted by his mother, who waits tables, and an older gentleman who I have not met but who appears to be the chef's father or another relative.
It looks to me like El Rojo is only a sideline. The family's associated catering business, Dojä -- Cocina de Inspiración, which is run out of the same kitchen, boasts a large international menu. I get the impression that while catering pays the bills, El Rojo is a labor of love and perhaps a place to experiment and try out new dishes on a small but appreciative clientele.
A complete lunch, everything included, costs about what a cocina economica would charge, 50 pesos, or less than four U. S. dollars, but rarely are budget restaurants this interesting or this nice. El Rojo/Dojä is located at Avenida Vicente Guerrero #2-C, just steps from the corner of Calle Madero and shady Jardín Guerrero. El Rojo opens only for the comida, afternoon meal, at 2:00PM on weekdays, and closes when the day's two-choice menu is sold out, which is usually by around 4:00PM.
I mentioned that El Rojo is my favorite budget restaurant in Mexico. I guess I'd go one step further. It's probably my favorite restaurant regardless of price. It's well worth a visit if you find yourself in Querétaro.