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The year is almost gone and, though many expected it to be free from the waves of chaos and change that the Coronavirus brought us in 2020, 2021 has proved to be just as challenging. But, at the same time, it has been more interesting than ever.

It’s been a year of transition, with everyone trying to make the best of their circumstances and transform challenges into solutions. When it comes to eating out, this was also a year where we oscillated between feeling connected to community again, the thrill of finding new culinary projects and going back to the places and flavors that have always been comforting and safe.

Such is the spirit of the following three places we’ve crowned as this year’s Best Bites in Oaxaca. They offered us safe, clean spaces with bites as exciting as the windy road of 2021.

Taquería el Gran Pastor

As the spring of 2021 unfolded, the Coronavirus seemed to have been tamed by scientists and research, and we were eager to go out and recover more than a year of lost emotions and connection – not to mention all the good food we missed. As desperate as we were, we understood our first outings still needed to be in safe, sanitized spaces. For us, Taquería el Gran Pastor was the sanctuary, simultaneously offering stability and a place to satisfy any crazy sense of adventure. The latter was for moments when information was confusing but we still needed to take a break from lockdown and risk stepping out of the house.

Perhaps the wild flavor of their salsas was what made us temporarily forget that the pandemic was not yet over, or maybe it was the juicy meat of their suadero tacos, transporting us directly to the streets of Mexico City.

Since the year 2000, when Roberto Apolinar opened El Gran Pastor, he made sure to bring to Oaxaca City the uniqueness of the suadero and tripa tacos (pork belly and tripe, respectively) that are native to Mexico City.

While nowadays these two kinds of tacos can be found in almost any taquería in Oaxaca, back in the early 2000s, Apolinar’s Taquería was one of the few – if not the only – that would serve suadero and tripa. At first, Apolinar hesitated to serve Oaxacans these unknowns, but time – and popularity – proved he made the right decision.

“We thought it could be risky, but in Mexico City this duo is the hit in every taquería, so why not incorporate it here?” he asks. To this day, no other taquería in Oaxaca serves a suadero as heavenly as Apolinar’s. The juicy, tender meat combined with their signature jalapeño and avocado salsa verde, along with a crunchy tripe taco or a warm and moist torta de pierna (pork leg sandwich) are the signature dishes at El Gran Pastor. Apolinar’s skill for serving up perfectly cooked and seasoned meat is a secret he learned while working at a taquería in Mexico City, and frankly, it also became our passport to experience “foreign” flavors without leaving the safety of our neighborhoods this year.

Levadura de Olla

“Just as the moon has its times and phases, so do the vegetables and grains. As consumers, we must understand that and flow with them in a more aligned and natural rhythm, in relation to the earth,” says Thalía Barrios, head chef and founder of Levadura de Olla, probably one of Oaxaca’s most refreshing food projects of the year. Levadura de Olla specializes in dishes traditionally served in the southern mountains of the state, about three hours away from the city.

The cooking of the Sierra Sur combines the hearty flavors of smoked salsas and vegetables with the herbal tones of the quelites (greens) and edible flowers found across the crops and landscapes of the chef’s hometown. Barrios cooks the food she grew up with but, at the same time, understands the dietary transition happening in the food industry these days; as many chefs and cooks shift the focus of their menus away from meat towards more vegetable-oriented meals, using only seasonal produce and fewer imported ingredients.

Although new culinary projects in the city are far from scarce, it takes special talent to take a handful of edible flowers, chiles and tomatoes, sauté them and transform them into a taco of succulent textures and umami flavors. Successfully jumping onto the transformational wave of 2021, Barrios’ plump pumpkin tamales, juicy stews of mushroom and bright salads brought joy and hope to our plates and palates, making us feel things were slowly starting to improve, as we sat on the restaurant’s patio enjoying the fresh days of summer.

Pan con Madre

Eating sourdough bread has never been common to locals in the city. The bread typically consumed in Oaxaca is mainly sweet, made with unfermented wheat flour and generally not spiced. However, in the last eight years or so, “new” sourdough bakeries have managed to collect devotees, and Pan con Madre is not an exception. This year in particular was one that gave us the comfort we needed – through freshly baked pastries, the delicate aroma of warm butter and spices, and good prices.

Jorge Rodrigo Ocampo, owner of Pan con Madre and one of the pioneers of sourdough baking in Oaxaca City, was aware that most Oaxacans prefer sweet bread and that not too many folks are acquainted with spices like cardamom, or the fermented yeast flavors in baguettes and other savory breads. But he was determined to bring new baked flavors to the city. After years of living and traveling across Oaxaca, Ocampo understood that creating a sense of community around the bakery and its clients was the best way to respond to this challenge.

He started introducing potential clients to a whole new range of flavors and textures by offering free samples of his creations. “Slowly, but surely, people reacted positively to my proposal. They often came just to see what I had, but didn’t venture to buy anything. After some weeks, they started buying some cookies and a pastry. Now, they come everyday and buy at least five different items,” he says.

Establishing strong connections with local producers is also part of Pan con Madre’s core values. Right from the beginning, Ocampo made sure to buy his materials from them: wheat flour from the Mixtec region, berries from the Sierra Norte, eggs and butter from the central valleys, honey from the coast.

Being able to savor an orange-scented pan de muerto (typical sweet bread consumed during Day of the Dead), some almond claws and a couple of cardamom-lime or rosemary-ricotta rolls was a simple but intense joy when the days started to grow colder and a fourth Covid-19 wave was becoming a reality.

2021 might be over, but the changes it has wrought on this world are here to stay. May 2022 bring more shared food experiences, new flavors and textures and, of course, more serenity and strength to keep moving on.

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María ÍtakaJalil Olmedo

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