Sunday, April 6, 2014

Oaxaca: This Side of Food Heaven

On a recent trip to Oaxaca, there was no time for Mexican Folk Art which is a passion or even for Monte Alban, the beautiful archaeological site located just 10 km outside Oaxaca. Those treasures would have to wait. My sole purpose for going to Oaxaca was to eat.

For years I've been told that Oaxaca food was the best in Mexico but like every other foodie, I had to see for myself.

It took just one plate of dark, rich, and wonderfully sweet and spicy mole negro to convince me.

I didn't count calories - a rather senseless exercise when it comes to vacation eating don't you think?

I tried and loved just about everything.

One of the many things I do before I go on a trip is to thoroughly research the restaurants.

In this case, I was armed with a file overflowing with information that local foodie Carol Jackson had collected over the years. It set me on the right path.

Frequently I email chefs and cooking schools to inquire about special offerings. Most all of them answer and to my delight, I've experienced things that many other travelers have not.

Make friends with the locals when you get there because they always give you the best options.

Eat everything. Food is an intrinsic part of the cultural profile that binds people together.

Of all of the cities I've traveled to, I have seldom found food perfection. Oaxaca was pretty darn close. In fact, I only had one meal that wasn't outstanding. The others were beautifully classic and uniquely Oaxaca.

The restaurants used local ingredients. This meant that the food was at its peak ripeness or freshness. The menus changed with the seasons, sometimes daily depending on what was at the local market, and all had elegant presentations.

Oaxaca food is always a surprise when you taste it. It's not immediately obvious, often rich, complex and layered with flavors.

One of the things that I found especially flavorful was unrefined pork lard called asiento which was applied as a thin layer on many of the things that I tasted. If you’re a bacon lover, this is the food for you.

Many people define mole by the number of ingredients. If you're actually counting them, black mole is the clear winner with many versions topping 30 ingredients and some containing up to 10 different varieties of chilies.

No matter how many ingredients there are in a mole, I quit counting once I took my first bite. As a staunch culinary purist, black mole is the perfect food. It's like nothing I've ever tasted before. It's definitely in a class by itself and goes on the list of my 10 best-loved foods.

Not just any black mole however...specifically the black mole at the Catedral Restaurante and Bar in Oaxaca.

So is Oaxaca the food capital of Mexico?

I've finally been seduced and no one can convince me otherwise.

Buen Apetito!

Catedral Restaurante and Bar
105 Garcia Virgil

I ate here twice and both meals hit the gold standard. You can also see from the prices that it was not too expensive.

Garnachas Sandunqueras Con Cruda y Carne de Res.

Small fried tortillas Tehhuantepec style with shredded beef and marinated pickled cabbage, onion, jalapeños and carrots.
75 pesos

Chilean Chardonnay

Santa Digna
60 pesos

You can find this wine at Cava Sautto for 131 pesos a bottle. Don't forget to leave some for me.

Espema de Tejate Con Nieve De Mamey y Crocante de Maiz.

Tejate foam with mamey sherbet and crispy corn.
70 pesos

Mole Negro con Guajolote Critto Acompanado de Pasta de Frijoles, Arroz Blanca y Cortez de Platano Macho.

Black mole with organic turkey confit accompanied by refried beans, rice and plantain sliced.
205 pesos

This was a family recipe and not only was the dish impeccable but the refried beans were smooth and purred with hint of chili.

Fantasia de Chocolate de Motate con Alma de Chihuacle Servido con Helado de Chocolate.

Handmade chocolate pastry with chilhuacle chili served with chocolate ice cream.
85 pesos

Carne Asadas

The grilled meat section in Oaxaca’s 20 de Noviembre market is dark and smoky but the food is delicious. It's a meat lover’s paradise.

First pick your meat: tasajo, which is thinly pounded, air-dried beef or Cecina which is similar and is thinly sliced pork. You can also select a cecina enchilada that is dusted with chili powder or opt for chorizo, your favorite Mexican breakfast sausage.

Pick a pepper and a bunch of onion that go under the grill when you cook it.

The stand from which you choose your meat will grill everything for you.

You then have a choice of spicy sauces and sides. Wrap it all in a large Oaxaca tortilla and you have breakfast.

30 pesos + 32 for vegetables.

La Casa de La Abuela
Hidalgo 616


Small rigid tortillas covered with pork relish ( more like a bacon jam) and cheese.
35 pesos

A memelita is a antojito (“little craving”) that is thicker than a tortilla and is toasted on a comal.

It's often topped with beans, quesillo - a brined cheese - and pork ground and mixed with spices or even eggs.

The serving sauces are made to different levels of heat depending on your palate.

Again, as I often do, this appetizer was my main meal and was both filling and delicious.

512 Garcia Virgil

Filete de res en salsa de papilla, circuela pasa y Mezcal a companado de pure de papa.

Beef filet with smoked chili, plums and Mezcal sauce and mashed potatoes.
205 pesos


This Oaxaca pizza is made on a semi-dried tortilla brushed with asiento and topped with refried beans, tomatoes, avocados, radishes, goat cheese and came with a little dish of chorizo on the side.

It's folded in half after being cooked on a charcoal grill. It can also be served with tasajo, cencilla or shredded chicken tinga.

The cabbage was plain not pickled which I like better but no complaints here.
90 pesos

60 pesos

Biznaga's Margaritas are the best in Oaxaca.

Casa Oaxaca
Constitucion 104-A

Mole Negro Con Guajolote Crillo, Arroz y Platano Frito.

Organic Turkey with Rice and fried bananas served with black mole
169 pesos

Chilean Chardonnay
Santa Digna
70 pesos

Casa Oaxaca is one of the top 50 Latin restaurants in the world. The food was delicious but the mole did not come close to the distinction of either the Catedral Restaurante and Bar or Biznaga.

Restaurante Origen
Hidalgo 820

I ran into Michael Coon, San Miguel's traveling chef and his group of 12. They just finished a cooking class and Chefs Rudolfo Castellanos' and Pastry chef Gabriele got rave reviews from the group.

Chef Castellanos is a native of Oaxaca, attended the “Instituto Culinario México”, and worked in both Monaco and San Francisco as well as throughout México.

It was happy hour and we stopped for a quick Queso de Puerco appetizer- 20 pesos- and several glasses of Tanillto Michaeliel Velerie at 60 pesos a glass.

Part of the "Origen experience" is the the architectural beauty of the restaurant. We felt very comfortable and at home in this restaurant. It was the perfect experience for happy hour and next time we'll go for comida.

The only restaurants we wanted to go to but had scheduling conflicts were La Teca Restaurant on Violetas Street, 200-A in Colonia Reforma and Los Danzantes at Calle Macedonio Alcala No. 403-4.

We also missed Susana Trilling's Seasons of My Heart Cooking School as Susan was out of town.