Trinidadian roti wraps and Mexican stuffed sopaipillas: the restaurants that thrived in 2020

Eric See started the summer unemployed and adrift. He was among the thousands of restaurant owners across the country who shuttered their businesses as Covid restrictions kept customers home. Depressed and guilt-ridden over laying off his employees, See grabbed his dog, loaded his car and headed home to New Mexico.

“Driving through America and being back home helped me understand that no one was alone in the struggle”, he said. He reconnected with his family, and their cooking – his mother’s breakfast burritos and tacos, fried to perfection.

“New Mexican food is ultra-comfort food. It is heavy, it is savory – and it is the kind of food that, when you are stressed out or under pressure, you want to eat,” he said.

Inspired, he returned to New York. He emptied his savings account, took out a loan, and launched a new counter-service cafe that offers his home-grown favorites – breakfast burritos with green Hatch chilies and stuffed sopaipillas, lightly fried sandwiches with roast pork or ground beef.

Eric See outside his Brooklyn restaurant Ursula, named after his grandmother.
Eric See outside his Brooklyn restaurant Ursula, named after his grandmother. Photograph: Courtesy Eric See

See is one of the passionate restaurateurs who are finding ways to thrive in a year marked by closures and heartbreak. These places offer the things that so many been craving in 2020: comfort, connection and community.

See named his cafe Ursula, after his 87-year-old grandmother. He said the food he serves packs as much spice and warmth as his family’s matriarch, who raised 10 kids on her own. Ursula, who recently recovered from Covid-19, cried when she learned See named his restaurant after her.

Now, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, locals have been lining up around the block to get a taste. “From the moment we opened our doors it has just been crazy,” See said. “To see restaurants opening when everything else around them is closing – it gives people this little glimmer of hope”.

In East Oakland, Annabelle Goodridge and her daughter Merissa Lyons are also sharing their family traditions with their neighbors. They opened CocoBreeze, a Caribbean restaurant that’s become a tropical haven.

From a bright, mural-covered storefront, Goodridge and Lyons serve roti wraps and jerk chicken with a side of sweet and savory pineapple chow – a staple from Goodridge’s native Trinidad. They garnish each meal with edible flowers, and on weekends, steel drum players perform outside on the sidewalk.

“It is a whole experience for all of your senses to enjoy,” said Lyons, who was laid off at the outset of the pandemic. “We understand that people feel isolated, they feel sad or distraught, or overwhelmed, not only with their health but with their circumstances. We just want to help people in that regard”.

Knowing that so many of their neighbors are struggling, Goodridge and Lyons also collect donations and distribute meals to local families experiencing homelessness. “We are trying to be part of this community and not just located in the community”, Goodridge said. Now, less than five months into their venture, regulars can’t seem to stay away.

Rahel Islam preparing food in pre-Covid times.
Rahel Islam preparing food in pre-Covid times. Photograph: Courtesy Rahel Islam

Minneapolis restaurateur Rahel Islam was another business owner adjusting to Covid restrictions this spring, when his Indian-Bangladeshi restaurant, Gandhi Mahal, was set on fire during protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

As he looked at the ash and rubble, he empathized with the protesters. “I was thinking about justice and the hundreds of years of injustice to our Black and sisters and brothers,” he said.

“Let my building burn,” he told a friend. “Justice needs to be served.”

He reflected on the reason he opened the restaurant 12 years earlier: “To bring peace by pleasing the palate,” he said. His community was thinking about him too.

As soon as he began rebuilding in July, volunteers showed up to help garden and paint. Three months later, he opened Curry in a Hurry, which he said will serve as a bridge until the new Gandhi Mahal is rebuilt.

When he does reopen Gandhi Mahal, he plans to expand it to include an aquaponics system, a rooftop apiary, and solar panels. He said the next iteration of his restaurant will resemble a community center as much as a restaurant.

Despite the trying year, he feels hopeful that his community – and his business – will recover. “In the end,” said, “you have to eat.”


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