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A year without reviews, ratings, or a meal inside a Philly dining room | Craig LaBan

I’ve continued writing about restaurants in ways that seemed often more important than ever. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss eating inside and writing reviews.

Aurora Hernandez, left, chef/owner, and Adolfo Florencio, also a chef at San Miguelito, pose for a portrait in front of the restaurant at the corner of Sixth and Oregon Ave. in South Philadelphia.
Aurora Hernandez, left, chef/owner, and Adolfo Florencio, also a chef at San Miguelito, pose for a portrait in front of the restaurant at the corner of Sixth and Oregon Ave. in South Philadelphia.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

You should have known all about Aurora Hernandez and San Miguelito by now.

At least, that was my plan a year ago this week when I returned to South Sixth Street and Oregon Avenue for another soul-soothing meal of fresh-pressed tortillas, chile rellenos, char-kissed al pastor, and meticulous combo platters at the taqueria Hernandez runs with her boyfriend, Adolfo Florencio.

I’d eaten there a few times over the previous years for brief mentions but always hesitated to write a full-length, bell-rated Sunday review for fear that this tiny operation, with just five small tables and every tortilla made patiently to order by Hernandez and Florencio, might be overwhelmed by the crowds unleashed by such coverage. But I’d gotten over that.

I found the food at San Miguelito compelling, not necessarily for its novelty so much as for the purity of its handcrafted homespun flavors, passed down from Hernandez’s mother and grandmother in San Lucas, Puebla. And I was ready to share my view that this corner taqueria was one of the shining gems in South Philly’s already brilliant constellation of Mexican restaurants.

But then came March 16, 2020, and the shutdown of all restaurant dining rooms in Philadelphia due to the coronavirus. Takeout was still allowed, which would enable San Miguelito to continue. But the world had suddenly been turned fearfully on its head. Everything was uncertain, including the immediate future of restaurants — and my reviews.

“Today was so slow we had just five customers. Tomorrow? I don’t know if we’re going to open,” Hernandez told me that week.

So I once again hit pause, thinking, as many people did at the time, that this would be just a brief interruption. We all know the turmoil that came next: a year of pandemic challenges and disruptions that decimated the hospitality industry with closures, illness, and job losses. The arrival of outdoor dining after a few months breathed some life — masked-up and socially distanced — into a Philly dining scene that was ready to fight. Those that survived this frigid winter now seem poised for a genuine revival as the workforce and dining public become increasingly vaccinated just as long-awaited government assistance for restaurants finally arrives.

And yet, I can’t help but think back on all the projects and loose threads I left hanging in those early weeks when life — and my intricately prescheduled work routine of reviews in progress — was suddenly interrupted. A couple previously completed restaurant reviews still ran in mid-March, with three bells (”excellent”) for both Via Locusta and Canal House Station, whose owners had published a fantastic culinary primer, Cook Something, that would conveniently inform many of my meal projects throughout the year.

But with dining rooms closed, that was it for formal restaurant reviews, with their multiple visits and critical assessments of food, service, and ambiance. San Miguelito’s review did not happen. Neither did a review of Melody’s Viet-Thai Grillhouse in Ambler, where I’d just devoured one of the most delicious grilled lemongrass chickens ever; or my take on Le Caveau, where I wanted to linger, sipping natural wines and nibbling French hot dogs on mustardy baguettes.

I did make it to the first of a few planned visits to Fiorella Pasta on March 12, 2020, and the sausage ragù, gnocchi, and short rib francobolli were fantastic. But, then ... Boom! Shutdown. I haven’t eaten inside a Philadelphia dining room since.

I still won’t eat inside a restaurant until I’m fully vaccinated, but now that I can actually see that on the horizon, I’m full of so many emotions. Part of me is now so conditioned to avoid crowds, it will be a while before I can relax near mask-free diners outside my immediate family. But I also miss sharing meals with friends so much, it will be a blessing to finally lift a glass to each other in person, not on Zoom.

Of course, while the reviews have been on hold, our restaurant coverage has not. I’ve been able to continue writing about restaurants and restaurant people in ways that seemed often more important than ever because the stakes were so high, from tales of surviving COVID-19 to the struggles of laid-off servers, rebounding from vandalism, chefs stepping up to feed communities in need, innovative new formats to give diverse new culinary voices a chance, and yes, many lists of takeout hits to keep patronizing restaurants safely.

I was so determined to continue eating outside, too, despite this brutal winter, that we bought formfitting sleeping bag suits for the task — after nearly freezing my fingers off while eating the best pad Thai ever beside a wheezing propane heater at Kalaya, and then, a few weeks later, racing against the cold to eat cacio pepe at Cry Baby Pasta before the frigid winds could turn it solid. The citywide mushrooming of elaborate new structures with HVAC for safe outdoor dining has been another revelation that reshaped Philadelphia in positive ways — and I hope we keep them going forward.

But I’d be lying if I said I did not miss eating inside dining rooms and writing reviews. And it’s not about the good food, of which I’ve gratefully still managed to eat plenty. It’s about documenting the snapshots of life and communities and realized culinary dreams that restaurant experiences convey in ways that takeout ghost kitchens will never replicate. A year of occasionally depending on third-party delivery apps — and witnessing them take advantage of small businesses at their most vulnerable moment — has been infuriating. And I miss the human warmth of genuine hospitality after a year of watching restaurant workers reluctantly double as behavior police for a public that too often flaunted its worst, most selfish instincts.

This year was instead about pure survival and keeping businesses afloat. I had my share of bad meals, but you just didn’t read about them. Delving into complaints over dishes, or trying to apply bell ratings to delivery meals from kitchens already stretched too thin would have been irrelevant and unfair.

I don’t know when that will change, when it will once again feel “normal” enough to review a restaurant again. But I look forward to the day when workers don’t have to weigh the risk of exposure to a deadly virus against their need to earn a living. The day when chefs can once again create menus because ingredients inspire them and tell stories, not because they travel decently in a takeout box. Many of those stories, no doubt, will have been indelibly altered by the pandemic.

And with government relief money now finally about to flow, and vaccine shots going into arms, a revival is so tantalizingly close I can almost taste it. Monk’s Cafe is about to reemerge from its monthslong hibernation on March 20 with a high-tech new HVAC system and a beer delivery service. Michael Vincent Ferreri, who earned a Top 25 spot at the now sadly closed Res Ipsa, just announced a new venture at Irwin’s at the BOK building launching April 9. The owner of Melody’s Grillhouse in Ambler has come downtown for a second restaurant on East Passyunk Avenue called Gabriella’s that I’m now eager to taste. Nearly 30 new restaurants for 2021 are already on tap.

Meanwhile, I remain awed by the fortitude of those who’ve persisted, often relying only on family for labor and in many cases with zero government assistance — places like San Miguelito, which had inexplicably drifted off my radar in the scramble of a chaotic year. Until last weekend.

I was so thrilled to find Aurora Hernandez and Adolfo Florencio just where I’d left them — still patiently pressing their supple tortillas one by one for outstanding tacos al pastor, combo platters, and tangy enchiladas verdes. The Hernandez family’s deep brown mole was still so silky and beguilingly complex — spicy, sweet, fruity, and earthy— that its delicious savor suddenly morphed into a pang of guilt. How did I leave this beautiful thread of a restaurant story undone for so long when the shutdown hit last March?

Hernandez, certainly, had not been waiting on me. She smiled warmly from behind her red mask as she handed me a big “Welcome Back!” cup of hot champurrado.

“It was slow and it was difficult. But we only closed for one day,” she said. “And we are still here. Because we’re strong.”

San Miguelito Mexican Cuisine, 2654 S. 6th St., 267-773-8440; on Facebook