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The year 2021 has been as unpredictable as 2020. At its start, we were thinking the lockdowns had run their course, only to be mistaken. Once restrictions were lifted, it still took several months for businesses to fully reopen. As is the story the world over, many restaurants, street stands, eateries and markets could not make it and have closed their doors permanently. We lost many people; some were dear friends who could not afford to stop working during the lockdowns –  either their businesses were considered essential or the income was needed at home.

Knowing that, we in Mexico City took what opportunities we could to celebrate life and its continuation in the shadow of the pandemic. It was an interesting year in terms of trying new places and stepping foot into old favorites. Chefs, owners and complete families involved in the food industry managed this tragedy as best they could. And love and perseverance were the main ingredients that kept things going.

In this final month of the year, and with the arrival of the holiday season, the city is bustling and people are back in the streets, from the trendy neighborhoods and high-toned venues to the taquerías and fondas – and even venturing out of town. Below, we share the year’s best bites from these very same places.

Hitting the Road: Norte B

We got in the car and headed out of Mexico City, spending two hours on the road going north. Our destination: the art, wine and cheese country of Tequisquiapan, home to Norte B, a craft winery and brewery. The shipping containers that make up the façade of Norte B provided a striking industrial contrast to the winery’s pastoral setting. But the giant blue containers are nothing compared to Peña de Bernal, a 433-meter tall rocky outcropping – one of the world’s tallest monoliths – that loomed in the distance. The setting added an element of drama to our pleasant outing, where we spent an afternoon sipping Norte B’s craft beers, which are brewed on-site.

Norte B labels its creations with names from the Otomi language, which belonged to the ancestral civilization that once inhabited these semidesert territories. A tasting includes four styles: lager, pilsner, dunkel and stout. Each one was a winner. The pilsner was very refreshing, a true thirst quencher. The dunkel was satisfyingly dark, with semi-toasted, caramel notes. The American-style pale ale was very robust, charged with hops, which gave off a pleasant bitterness. Finally, we particularly loved the thick stout, with its coffee and chocolate notes. Taken all together, the outstanding beers plus the dramatic setting provided for one of the better memories in an otherwise forgettable year.

And We’re Back: Restaurante Taurino El Taquito

No matter how chaotic the neighborhoods that surround Mexico City’s Centro Histórico have become, the bullfighting-themed Restaurante Taurino El Taquito    has been standing firm, resisting earthquakes and the neglect of the area by local authorities for more than 100 years. Often between a rock and a hard place, the Guillén family, the restaurant’s owners, still believes in people and traditional Mexican cuisine – whether it be street favorites or more sophisticated classics.

The reward for arriving at El Taquito, once you manage to walk through the labyrinthine streets of Centro, is a trip back in time. The walls here are covered with bullfighting memorabilia and photos of some of the celebrities who ate here – Marilyn Monroe and Gabriel García Márquez among them – during its glory days, back when the sport of toreadors was still associated with glamour and sophistication. While that’s all in the past, the food here is still worth coming for, from the best plato de frijoles de la olla con chorizo (beans in a pot with chorizo) in town to the expertly made (and increasingly hard to find) offal dishes, like machitos (goat intestines), lengua de res (beef tongue) and criadillas (bull’s testicles). The bar here serves another classic, the Banderillas de Fuego, a tequila shot topped with three liquors (mint, grenadine and anis) that create the colors of the Mexican flag. The whole thing is set on fire tableside and drunk through a straw (very quickly!).

There’s nothing new or trendy about El Taquito, but the pot of beans with chorizo that we had there this year was certainly among 2021’s most memorable meals. Why does anyone go back to a 100-year-old restaurant? Maybe it’s nostalgia for a past that is long gone. But in a year like this one, that’s just what we needed.

Great Unexpectations: Vocablo Café y Poesía

We were looking for a spot to set some friends up on a date and happened upon Vocablo Café y Poesía, in the Roma neighborhood. It was just what we’d been looking for: A quiet place with very good coffee and just the right ambiance.

Vocablo isn’t among the trendy spots that plague the hip Roma and Condesa neighborhoods. Instead, inside this small café there are a couple of quiet corners where you can find writers, journalists and poets working on their pieces. There are poems pasted all over the tables, at the counter and even in the bathrooms! It was that little something extra that made us take note to come back. What a delightful and unexpected surprise!

The atmosphere was, to put it simply, poetic. The pleasure here was not so much in the food or drink they served – sometimes the most satisfying bite is a little bit of peace and poetry.

Spicy Blast from the Past: Roldán 37

While love, passion and hope were the main ingredients that got restaurants through the pandemic lockdowns, it was people’s unquenchable desire to go out for a nice meal that underpinned their success. That was certainly the case for Roldán 37, a La Merced neighborhood restaurant that offers a very interesting menu, with chiles in the starring role. The chiles en nogada, a stuffed poblano pepper bathed in a creamy walnut sauce and garnished with pomegranate seeds and fresh parsley, is a show-stopper, and – as is traditional – only available in late summer.

Run by chef Romulo Mendoza, the restaurant pays homage to his grandparents, who used to sell the chiles they grew in Veracruz out of the same building that has been home to Roldán 37 for several years. Back in the day, when the building was still a store for dried and fresh chiles, its workers, looking for a pick me up, used to pour a dash of mezcal into a makeshift shot glass made of poblano chiles halved crosswise, turning them into little cups. It was  the easiest way to get a swig in, as in those days glasses were a luxury for those hard at work on their shifts.

Stepping back in time, Mendoza has brought back these medio chile mezcal shots to the menu, rimming the halved peppers with salt, just like a proper shot glass. And how good they tasted! In this topsy-turvy year, it was something so simple that stayed with us the most.

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