COVID-19 is crushing Mexico City’s food scene and the culinary energy that has made it so thrilling

MEXICO CITY — The restaurant didn’t have a name. It was just a handful of candlelit tables around an open kitchen that produced simple but inspired fare. One day chef Sofia Garcia Osorio would serve spicy octopus tacos on tortillas made of freshly ground corn. The next, she’d present steaming guava tamales […]

The restaurant didn’t have a name. It was just a handful of candlelit tables around an open kitchen that produced simple but inspired fare.

One day chef Sofia Garcia Osorio would serve spicy octopus tacos on tortillas made of freshly ground corn. The next, she’d present steaming guava tamales sheathed in delicate banana leaf skins.

It was the kind of place — next to a popular mezcal bar in a vibrant downtown neighborhood — that in recent years has helped make Mexico City one of the most exciting places on Earth for food.

It was not uncommon for tourists to fly here simply to eat, bouncing in the same day between taco stands and elegant establishments with Michelin stars, a testament to the city’s deeply ingrained food culture and its zeal for both modern experimentation and traditional cuisine.

The upscale taco joint El Parnita features outdoor cooking and tables for sidewalk dining in what owner Paulino Martínez described as an “act of civil disobedience” against Mexico City’s pandemic restrictions.

(Meghan Dhaliwal / For The Times)

But now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants in this megalopolis of 19 million people are disappearing en masse.

At least 13,000 of the 90,000 restaurants in and around Mexico City have closed in the last 10 months, according to a local trade group, pushed out by prolonged pandemic lockdowns and a conspicuous lack of government support.

The die-off has swallowed restaurants large and small, from mom-and-pop joints that prepared three-course “comida corridas” for lunchtime crowds to hipster eateries that topped best-of lists.

Garcia’s restaurant without a name, which was praised by critics for its carefully sourced ingredients and fealty to traditional techniques, was forced to close Dec. 31 after six years of operation.

“Life surprises us,” Garcia said in a brief farewell message to her clients.

The surge in restaurant closures, which have accelerated after a second citywide lockdown banned all in-person dining for a month, has triggered familiar political debates — echoed elsewhere in the world — about whether pandemic restrictions meant to save lives are worth destroying economies.

Gerardo Vazquez Lugo, owner of Nicos restaurant in Mexico City

Chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo had to close his restaurant Fonda Mayora in November and Nicos, the restaurant his parents opened in 1957, is barely hanging on.

(Meghan Dhaliwal / For The Times)

Bu they have also prompted other reflections: What will happen to the creative culinary energy that made this city so thrilling? And what do you lose when a restaurant goes away?

“We’re bleeding jobs, yes, but we’re also losing culture,” said chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo, who in November was forced to close Fonda Mayora, which served heavenly chile rellenos and other classic Mexican comfort food in a pretty Art Deco diner in the Condesa neighborhood.

His other restaurant, Nicos, a venerated establishment opened by his parents in 1957 in a working-class neighborhood on the city’s north side, is hanging on — barely.

“Rents don’t stop. Payroll doesn’t stop. Taxes don’t stop,” Vasquez said on a recent afternoon as waiters idled around the restaurant’s large and very empty dining room, hoping someone would call in a takeout order.

In recent weeks, protests have erupted over the lockdown initiated by the city government on Dec. 18 amid an alarming rise in coronavirus infections and a dearth in hospital beds and ventilators. The ban on in-person dining was supposed to lift Jan. 11, but officials extended it at the last minute, saying record-breaking daily death tolls meant eateries must remain closed.

Overnight, waiters began converging on busy intersections, banging pots. A letter to city leaders signed by 500 of the city’s top restaurateurs warned that many more permanent closures were to come if restrictions weren’t loosened. “We open or we die,” they pleaded — a phrase that was criticized on social media as tone-deaf given the city’s more than 25,000 actual COVID-19 deaths.

Some restaurants decided to risk fines and legal action and open anyway.

On a verdant block in the Roma neighborhood, popular upscale taco joint El Parnita set up tables on the sidewalk in what owner Paulino Martínez described as an “act of civil disobedience.”

Martínez said no one understands the risks of the virus better than he does: Three months ago, his mother Bertha, with whom he founded the restaurant a dozen years ago, died from COVID-19. A photo of her now hangs above an altar inside.

Still, he decided to open, he said, because he believed in the effectiveness of the restaurant’s sanitary measures and saw the desperation of his employees and the more than 100 local companies that provide him meat, produce and spirits.

“My hours have been cut in half,” said one employee, María del Carmen Jiménez, who on a recent chilly afternoon stood making tortillas on a comal, a traditional griddle, that had been moved outside to serve a handful of customers sitting at bistro tables.

A single mother with three children, she said she barely has enough money to pay for the two-hour bus ride home to the outskirts of the city, much less the internet that her children now require for at-home learning. “We’re not asking for anything other than the right to work,” she said.

A tuna taco, made and served outdoors on the sidewalk in front of Mexico City restaurant Paramo.

A tuna taco, made and served outdoors on the sidewalk at the Mexico City restaurant Paramo.

(Meghan Dhaliwal / For The Times)

Restaurants here won a small victory when officials agreed that they could open outdoor seating this week, albeit with restrictions. But the protests highlighted deeper tensions between the government and an industry that feels it has been abandoned by the populist politics of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Elected in a landslide in 2018 by vowing to “put the poor first,” López Obrador has frequently clashed with the nation’s business elite, which he describes as a highly corrupt “mafia of power.” As most of the rest of the world takes out loans to inject money into struggling economies, López Obrador has declined to borrow money for stimulus payments, tax breaks or other aid packages countrywide. “No more bailouts in the style of the neoliberal period,” López Obrador told reporters last year.

That means that except for a one-time $100 payment to waiters from the city and a one-month break on payroll tax, there has been no direct aid for Mexico City’s ailing restaurant industry.

Some restaurateurs have questioned whether López Obrador views them as elite institutions not worthy of assistance. In meetings with industry trade groups, government officials have pointed out that a third of the city’s population is too poor to ever eat in restaurants. Those same officials have allowed street food vendors to continue to operate.

“They think if you have a restaurant you’re a millionaire,” said Edgar Núñez, a chef with two eateries, Comedor Jacinta and Sud777. “But we live on the edge.”

López Obrador’s defenders say the restaurant industry isn’t being singled out, noting that few industries have received assistance and that the nation’s recession has left government coffers mostly empty.

“I think the government doesn’t have it,” said Gabriela Cámara, who serves on the president’s Council for Cultural Diplomacy and is the chef and owner of the popular seafood restaurant Contramar. But Cámara said she knows the lack of aid has left many restaurants with no good options. “It’s been a terrible crisis,” she said.

During the first ban on in-person dining, which lasted from March until June, restaurateur Norma Listman-Sánchez did everything she could to avoid laying off employees. Mexico’s Social Security Institute only provides insurance to workers employed in the formal sector, and she didn’t want to leave them without insurance in the middle of a health emergency.

Paying them meant she fell behind on three months of taxes. She hoped the government would forgive her lapse. Instead it froze her bank account, which will remain inaccessible until she pays back $13,000. She said government officials asked for a bribe to make the problem go away, but that she declined.

“In Mexico you get punished for doing the right thing,” she said. “The people who fired all of their employees at the beginning don’t owe all of the taxes that I owe.”

Her restaurant Masala y Maiz, which serves Indian-influenced dishes like street corn cooked in coconut milk or fried chicken with cardamom sweet potato purée, remains closed, in part because it doesn’t have outdoor seating and in part because she knows restaurants are “vectors of contagion.”

To survive, she and her husband and co-owner Saqib Keval have gotten creative — like many restaurateurs in Los Angeles. They noticed that grocery stores, which were allowed to remain open, were doing swift business. So along with their restaurant employees they formed a co-op, Super Cope, which sells natural wines and local products from chef friends who have lost work. Soon, it was turning a profit.

“We’ve tried to focus on how this crisis can be an opportunity to focus on long-term change,” said Keval.

“What do we need to do not just to make our business stronger but to make the conditions of our workers better?”

There have been other pandemic food projects that give cause for hope. Many people, including those not in the food industry, have begun preparing dishes in their homes to sell to neighbors. Some of them, like a delivery-only bakery whose name translates to Quarantine Baking, have been wildly successful.

Yet as restaurants go away, there is a heavy sense that some of what made Mexico City’s food scene unique is disappearing too.

Little storefront restaurants and taco and quesadilla stands that once served packs of hungry office workers are gone or struggling now that many people are working from home and others don’t have money enough to eat out.

“There are people who used to order three tacos who now can only order one,” said Luis Martínez, who works at a carnitas stand near a once-bustling metro station. The way he relates with clients has changed too. The brightly painted stand, which has been in operation for three decades, is now wrapped with protective plastic so thick it makes conversation difficult.

Chef Allen Noveck said he worries that chains or restaurants backed by wealthy investors will replace the family-owned businesses “that were the heart of the food culture here.”

He worries that the city will no longer be seen by ambitious chefs as a place to take risks.

Noveck, an American, fell in love with his future wife, Marifer Millán, while they worked in the kitchen at Locanda Verde, a popular Italian restaurant in Tribeca.

They desperately wanted to start a restaurant but couldn’t afford it in New York, so they moved to Millán’s former home, Mexico City, where for $20,000 they opened Fat Boy Moves, a small diner offering bibimbap, kimchi biscuits and other food inspired by Noveck’s Korean heritage.

Four years later, the pandemic hit and they lost everything. A $1,000 small-business loan from the city government didn’t even cover one month’s rent. They closed in October.

“We just got crushed,” said Noveck. “Everyone got crushed.”

Mexico City restaurant Fonda Mayor was forced to close because of the pandemic

Mexico City restaurant Fonda Mayor was forced to close because it could not weather the financial losses caused by the pandemic.

(Meghan Dhaliwal / For The Times)

Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Traci J. Lewis

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