MEXICO CITY — A couple of weeks ago my wife and I did something we hadn’t done in a year: We had late-night tacos from our favorite street taco stand, Los Juanes. It’s a small neighborhood-famous stand, run by three young men and an older guy named Juan, on a poorly illuminated corner three blocks from our apartment. I found it when we first moved to Mexico City from Lima, Peru, in early 2019.
Although I am not primarily a food writer anymore, I still normally spend a lot of time “researching,” which usually means eating and drinking in restaurants, bars, stands and everything in between. Until 2019, my research took me around the world: from vineyards next to the Andes in Mendoza, Argentina, to packed street hawker centers in Singapore and to Michelin-starred restaurants in the Basque Country and fragrant cheese caves in Melbourne and Adelaide, Australia. I ate with chefs around the world, friends and, just as important, other patrons; the meals were as notable for conviviality as for ingenuity.
My experience was extreme, but I was hardly alone in my restaurant obsession. For those of us who devoured Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” or used to organize vacations around dinner reservations, restaurants had become our main cultural activity — movie theater, theme park and comic convention rolled into one. It was also our means of connection: I have always lived in tight urban centers; even when I wasn’t working, restaurants and bars were my meeting point, my office, my living room.
Then in November 2019, I fell ill. I spent weeks in the hospital, and sequestered at home for three months after that. The few meters between my bedroom, the kitchen and the bathroom became my whole universe. In retrospect, I was in rehearsal for the pandemic year.
In early March, when I started crawling my way back to the streets to what I thought was my normal life, which in my mind included street tacos and long restaurant dinners, the pandemic hit Mexico. My dreams of an endless Sunday lunch with a large group of friends having pisco chilcanos in my favorite Peruvian restaurant were postponed.
Since then, my wife and I, like so many others around the world, haven’t been in a restaurant. I haven’t left Mexico City since November of last year. Our atomized existence weighs on me. I want to share a bottle of wine, not pour one all for myself. I want to query a chef about something extraordinary I found in her dish, not search “ingredient substitutions” for recipes that I can’t quite picture.
Home life wasn’t all hardship, by any means. The pandemic brought me back to comfort food classics. I felt extremely privileged to be able to spend an hour or two at the kitchen cooking for us almost daily. Most weekdays I make breakfast, lunch and dinner: enormous pots of Bolognese con i piselli, jars of which I send to friends. Peruvian ají de gallina and lomo saltado. Over time, I developed at least 20 variations of risotto. Banana bread was briefly an obsession.
Occasionally, over these last months, when I decided I was cooking something special, I had ordered a prime cut from the neighborhood butcher shop, say, or seasonal morel mushrooms from a specialty store, we would open a bottle of wine, giddy at the chance to enjoy a fancy meal. And then I’d realize I was still missing everything about what once made me love food: the people who create it and the sobremesa — the limitless chat after desserts, the reluctance to leave the table, the delight in shared experience.
I’ve recently started to venture outside at times of the day when we know there aren’t many people on the street. That’s how, one night, we found ourselves on Los Juanes’ corner. “Take away only,” a small sign read. “Hand sanitizer use is mandatory,” read a smaller one next to it.
Tacos Los Juanes used to be crowded and vibrant every night from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. or so. The clientele was always a curious mix: office workers, gymgoers, tourists, party makers.
But now when we walked by, it had only a couple of patrons, masked and silently waiting.
“Why don’t you ask for their phone number?” my wife said. A few days later I called and ordered tacos al pastor and flank steak with cheese in a flour tortilla.
When the food arrived, the smell felt so weird and satisfying. I hadn’t had those tacos in a year, and there they were, sitting on my countertop, street tacos — and their salsas — delivered right to my pandemic kitchen.
We ate them eagerly. They were delicious, of course. A flavorful remembrance of times past. But at the same time, they were a painful reminder of the world we don’t live in anymore. A world where you could stop by a taco stand late at night to have four tacos al pastor, adding salsas to your disposable plate, surrounded by strangers without thinking about getting a deadly disease. A world where you could eat dinner and have a bottle of wine — or two or three — in a restaurant sitting at a table full of friends instead of in front of a computer screen, wearing pajama pants.
That’s when it hit me. Los Juanes’ tacos were great, but great tacos, like a great steak with morels and pasta al limone, lack flavor if they are not the side dish of a great chat or a moment shared with family and friends.
The other day my wife and I ran into a chef friend we hadn’t seen in a year, in front of his popular seafood restaurant. He knew I was sick before the pandemic, that my quarantine had been longer than most. He’d had Covid twice — or that’s what he said.
He tried to hug me. It felt deeply painful to reject him. “Not yet, carnal,” I said. Then he asked when I had last eaten at a restaurant. My wife and I looked at each other. “March,” I said timidly. He couldn’t believe it. “Let’s do this,” he said. “I will close the private room for both of you tomorrow.” I told him I’d think about it.
Back at home, we decided it still was not safe enough to accept our friend’s offer. But the decision to turn him down — reluctantly — was about more than that.
Our next time in a restaurant won’t be isolated in a back room worrying about getting infected. Our first time in a restaurant will be sharing and laughing and drinking with a big group of friends, when my illness — and the pandemic — will be nothing but a distant memory. We’re not there yet. But I can hardly wait.
Diego Salazar is a journalist and the author of “No hemos entendido nada,” which examines the effects of search algorithms on journalism.
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