Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The Simple Foods of Oaxaca

Many of the foods in Oaxaca are extremely complex, like Martina Escobar’s recipe for the 35 ingredient Black Mole at Restaurante Catedral in Centro. Eight years ago, it took just one plate of this dark, rich, wonderfully sweet and spicy Mole Negro to convince me that the food in Oaxaca has a depth no other place in Mexico has.
Tejate, a drink that’s made in the markets in Oaxaca, is known as the Drink of the Gods. It’s made from maize corn, a flower called flor de cacao, mamey seeds, roasted cacao beans and fine ash. After being toasted and ground, the paste is dissolved with water and beaten with the hands for an hour to obtain the thick foam. Tejate is also the most labor intensive drink on the planet. The amount of time and effort that goes into making a bowl of Tejate is mind blowing. Beyond the complexity of many of the dishes in Oaxaca, we found a genuine simplicity to some of Oaxaca’s best foods…
Truth be told, I would go to Oaxaca just for the chocolate. Here, one made with milk and the other made with water are served at one of the best restaurants in Oaxaca, Restaurante Catedral. Of course Patsy Dubois, who teaches Mexican cooking in SMA and Jose Yanez, an accomplished pre-Hispanic cook, both are fond of the age-old tradition of chocolate made with water. I prefer the consistency that milk adds to the mix. Side by side, you can really see the difference between the two. Oaxaca is a place that has a deep-seated chocolate and cacao consuming culture imbedded into everyday life and once you’ve tasted Oaxacan chocolate, you’ll find a good reason to get up in the morning. It’s my favorite breakfast drink.
The Chilaquiles at Restaurante Catedral were also made of simple ingredients once the Guajillo chili salsa was made: fried tortillas, onions, shredded chicken and cheese. This red salsa, which surprisingly I loved so much that I went back for seconds, made me wonder what else I’ve been missing out on by only eating salsa verde my entire life. Take your pick; the chili is a medium heat but the smaller version of the chili, the Guajillo Puya, is said to be a lot hotter. I like my Chilaquiles on the crispy side but according to Jose, those would not be considered ‘authentic’ Chilaquiles according to his mama and who knows better than a Mexican mother?
Simple roasted tomatoes on phyllo dough were sold as a pizza roll at Boulenc, our favorite bakery in Oaxaca. They were so good, we ate them in the afternoon, sometimes instead of lunch. Tomatoes were also used in one of Chef Thalía Barrios Garcia’s signature dishes at Levadura de Olla. Her tomato salad was defined by a base of beetroot puree and cinnamon vinaigrette that dressed the wild Quelites on top. My favorite tomato on the plate was what Jose called the Manzana; a golden tomato with a delicious, sweet flavor. Even the tortillas at Levadura de Olla were beautiful; made with a mix of masas including the traditional blue. The salsa was also divine; pure tomato and chili with just the right spice. Of course, Jose was the star of the show at Levadura de Olla, owning his knowledge of Mexican foods and even impressing the staff with his explanations to several inquisitive customers.
Boulenc also sells simple ingredients in their stores: the heirloom tomatoes that Patsy purchased to take home for the seeds, goat milk Dulce de Leche from Etla that they used for the delicious, cold coffee I drank every morning, Dulce de Leche Frio Latte, and various Oaxaca coffees they used in their other drinks. Boulenc also used simple accents that add remarkable flavors to the foods like this fresh squeezed lemonade with mineral water that was flavored with a slice of fresh grapefruit; totally altering the taste of the drink. We loved many of the creative but simple things that Boulenc made like this sandwich of thin waffles and a fried egg and toast with a peep hole in the middle. Of course, there were always a number of rather complex salsas and oils on the side to give the foods an additional boost.
Although we’ve pretty much given up drinking in exchange for health, we couldn’t resist a sip of this made-in-Oaxaca Mezcal. We also anticipated the cross in the bottom of the glass; a rendezvous left over from our years of Catholic schools. Although the spirit can be up to 160 proof, it’s also known to leave you headache free. Oaxaca mezcals are enjoyed neat, allowing the nuances of flavor to come through. The most important thing to remember is that they should be sipped. As they say in Oaxaca: “tómalo a besos” or drink it with kisses. And don’t forget to hit the Mezcal trail while you’re there. From Oaxaca to San Augustin de las Juntas, Santa Catarina Minas and San Baltazar Chichicapam, every palenque is different, unique in its brands and methods of distilling and is also totally off-the-beaten-path. We love the route because the palenque’s are all small and very simple; the thing we love best about an ever changing Oaxaca. At one of them, the family made an altar with the first dollar they ever earned in heartening display.
Outside the entrance to the Tlacolula market on Sunday, you can’t miss Pollos Guerrero; an aroma that carried me back to the BBQs of my childhood past. The chickens at Pollos Guerrero were placed on a grill and roasted over charcoal; it was that simple. Jose and I sat down and polished off a half a chicken before we even had time to think about what was inside the market… Barbacoa, Nieves, Tejate, Pan de Cazuela, Carne Asada; all of which we had eaten before. No regrets here because my appetite was handed over to this meaty chicken and it was truly the best pollo we’ve eaten in Mexico. I ate mine plain without any sauce; the mark of truly great BBQ.
In very complex market, like Central de Abastos, where you can get lost in the blink of an eye, willing locals, with a little sweet-talk from Patsy, led us to food stands like Memelas Dona Vale where the order of the day was brushed with lard and covered with cheese and a secret salsa. A global celebrity, Dona Vale is featured in the third episode of the Netflix series Street Food: Latin America. Simple foods like Dona Vale’s memelas filled out moments of pleasurable eating, especially when we were wandering the markets.
Patsy Dubois and Jose Yanez, two very gifted cooks, both have a passion for squash blossoms. In fact, Patsy is known as the Queen of Squash Blossoms in SMA having stuffed thousands of them for parties and cooking classes over the years. Patsy went to the Tlacolula market a few weeks before I did and told me about a squash blossom quesadilla she had eaten there. What really astonished her was that the squash blossoms still had dew on them; obviously picked fresh that morning. What a remarkable experience to get ingredients this fresh because that just doesn’t happen every day.
If I have to choose one fruit, pineapple will always be it. I love the taste of pineapple and Jose and I ate extra thick slices in the Tlacolula market that were dusted with chili. Oaxaca is known for its pineapples and the flavor was exceptional. Oaxaca hosts an annual festival, the Feria de la Piña, in the town of Loma Bonita every May. Both the Covilli growers in the area cultivate the Oaxacan Gold variety, which has a sweet taste even though the outside is green. Senor Rendon, a third- generation pineapple grower, likes to walk his Loma Bonita fields barefoot; he says it helps him get a better feel for the crop. Growers sell many of their organic pineapples to restaurants in the Mexican wine region of Valle de Guadalupe where former SMA residents and veteran Mixologists, Gabriel and Angel Avila, also use them in their contemporary cocktails. Although I loved some of the rich, complex dishes we ate at some of the restaurants in Oaxaca, foods like hot chocolate, a simple but signature tomato salad, regional Mezcals, roasted tomato pizzas, tortillas made with multiple masas, uncomplicated BBQ chicken, Chilaquiles made with modest ingredients, a quesadilla with the morning dew still on the squash blossoms and a thick slice of a Oaxacan Gold pineapple were just some of the many favorite flavors of Oaxaca we appreciate and would travel for again. Buen Provecho!

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Our Favorite Oaxaca Restaurant: Levadura de Olla

Our favorite restaurant in Oaxaca is Levadura de Olla, a simple colonial courtyard in the middle of Centro. It was our sixth attempt to score a fabulous meal at a high end restaurant. How’d we luck out? We took an afternoon to study menus online to find some that we’re really different. This restaurant wasn’t here the last time I came to Oaxaca. Levandura de Olla opened in 2019 and Cocina de Humo, Chef Thalia Barrios Garcia’s other restaurant, launched in 2021. We find it pretty incredible that the chef created this culinary windfall during Covid; a testament to her self-discipline and determination to succeed. What do we love about Chef Thalía Barrios Garcia cooking? Well for one thing, her food is out of the ordinary; many of her dishes are what she calls the lost ancestral dishes of Oaxaca. These are NOT the same moles, tlayudas, tamales and memelas we ate 8 years ago when we were here. Her knowledge of both agriculture and ingredients continues to foster her. Her restaurants are an artistic expression that offers a most genuine narrative on Oaxacan food you can get. She speaks her own language when it comes to many of the dishes that make up her menu. This tomato salad, one of her signature dishes, was so fresh, the native heirlooms nearly jumped off the plate, much like Chef Arturo Sandoval’s tomato dish at Atrio only hers were defined by a base of beetroot puree and the cinnamon vinaigrette that dressed the wild herb Quelites on top.
After seriously over dosing on the most delicious heirlooms on the planet, I ordered something I thought that would be lighter: the Chicken giblet masita (tamale) with jalapeño chile peppers, avocado and a very salty chicken broth. The Chicken was a gallina criolla; a wild chicken and the kind that is grown in the countryside, consuming only natural foods. They’re often called creole chickens and as soup, the extra salty broth adds to the flavor of the dish.I loved the dish and would order it again. I really laughed at the fact that a week ago, no one could ever convince me to even eat a tamale, much less one that was made with the giblets of a chicken. The dish was divinely different and unique to the chef’s home town of San Mateo Yucutindoo, a small village in Oaxaca's southern mountains which is one of the more off-the-beaten path destinations, culinarily speaking. In fact, everything on the menu was, in some way, a tribute to San Mateo.
I played it safe and washed it all down with a delicious Pineapple and mango water; two of my favorite Mexican flavors. The restaurant’s offering of traditional ancestral beverages was astonishing; among them Agua de Maiz, Tapacha, Pozontle and Pulque and drinks such as ticunchi, made with papalometl agave and a plant called trebol, also native to the southern mountains of Oaxaca. The dessert, a Buñuelo, was thin and super light, covered in creams and dressed with fruits that were sweet but not too sweet.
Meet our waiter, Jared, who was not only smart and charming but knew the answers to every question I asked; and, as always, I asked a million of them and after I left, I thought of a dozen more. Having a waiter of this caliber was certainly a golden moment in my dining experience. The chef, Thalía Barrios Garcia, has been serving food for two decades: selling chocolates at age 6, her grandmother’s tamales from 7 to 11, and then started a birthday cake business, Naranja Dulce, at age 12 that is still going strong. While attending culinary school, she opened a taco and tlayuda stand in San Pablo Huixtepec, sold homemade ice cream, and continued to operate Naranja Dulce. She interned at Corazón de Tierra, Ensenada, before opening Levadura de Olla in 2019 and Cocina de Humo in 2021. Food and Wine Mexico named her a Best New Chef in 2021. After this meal, we’re searching for another experience like this one and we’re pretty sure we’ll have to go to Chef Thalía Barrios Garcia’s other restaurant, Cocina de Humo, to get it. In the heart of the Oaxacan food scene, Chef Thalía Barrios Garcia is a scene stealer. She’s the mastermind behind the one-of-a-kind menu that totally stole the show today. Levadura de Olla C. De Manuel Garcia Virgil 304, Ruta Independencia Centro, Oaxaca Tuesday - Thursday 1:00 PM - 9:00 PM Friday and Saturday open until 10:00 PM Sunday and Monday closed Phone: 951 269 9068

Chasing Oaxaca

Food lovers say if you’re in Oaxaca, you should go to: #1 Origen for the food #2 Criollo for the experience and #3 Casa Oaxaca because everyone should go there at least once. Admittedly, I’ve been there three times. We scored 2 out of 5 when we added Catedral and Los Danzantes to the list of best restaurants and hit them first. These were certainly not the numbers we had hoped for because the last time we we’re in Oaxaca, we scored 5 out of 5. I’ll take it for now and continue to wonder why the meals were off at three of Oaxaca’s top restaurants this week. Sharing in the disappointment was Patsy Dubois, who was with me but in each of the cases, the chefs were not in their kitchens the day we went. Our two scores were Catedral and Origen.
Catedral Restaurant, the beautiful colonial home at Calle de Manuel García Vigil 105 is a masterpiece. The 32 ingredient family recipe of Mole Negro over Turkey Confitado with rice and black beans were the flavors I remembered when I ate here in 2014 that had me believing that nothing in the world was better than black mole. 9 years later, I still feel the same. The mole was spicy, smoky, and had earthy-sweet notes with many of the ingredients: chiles, nuts, warm spices and tomato. As for texture, the mole was velvety smooth with no after taste what so ever. The cornerstone of mole negro, the chilhuacle chile pepper can only be found in Oaxaca or in Latin markets that specialize in Oaxacan products or for a pretty penny online. Other items like mulato chiles and avocado leaves might also be difficult to track down depending where you live. Some say that Mole, in its essence, represents a way of life that’s disappearing. After all, it takes days to make and involves a crowd in the preparation. We happen to think Mole Negro is the most delicious of all the seven Oaxacan moles. It’s often, and in this case, served over shredded Turkey with rice, beans and steaming tortillas on the side. Martina Escobar is the owner of Cathedral; operating since 1976. We went for breakfast again this morning and could not get over the beautiful presentation of the Oaxaca chocolate made with milk. I immediately went to Chocolate Mayordomo several blocks away (founded in 1956) to buy some small molinillos so Patsy could recreate this presentation for an upcoming cooking class. Breakfast was two overstuffed Tacos de Cochinita Pubil with potatoes. The restaurant reminds us of the San Angel Inn in Mexico City. It’s historic and over the years, they have trained their staff to provide impeccable service to match their food.
At Origen Restaurant, Hidalgo 820 Centro, Oaxaca, my main course selection was the Pork tenderloin in hoja santa with bacon, seasonal mushroom sauté and chileatole which covered many memorable, Oaxacan flavors. The dessert was an extra brut cocoa sponge cake, coffee, salted caramel cream, cherries and local stout beer sorbet. I could have eaten a mountain of the salted caramel cream; a divine taste I kept on my tongue for a long time to savor every last bite. The pairing with the cherries and sponge cake was perfect. It was so good, I was tempted to ask for a second dessert. Rodolfo studied at the Culinary Institute of Mexico in Puebla. He won the Turquois scholarship that took him to Monaco. He learned in Europe and it contrasted all those traditional flavors of his roots with a great base of French techniques. He worked in places as diverse as the Embassy of France in Mexico and La Mar de Gastón Acurio in San Francisco; with chefs like Joël Garault in Monte Carlo and Traci Des Jardins in Le Jardinier in San Francisco. In 2009 he returned to Oaxaca where, since 2011, he’s written the history of Origin, with a dining room that’s become a laboratory of collective creation. Rodolfo was the winner of the first edition of the Top Chef Mexico in 2016 where SMA chef, Matteo Salas, also competed. I’ve taken Chef Rodolfo Castellanos’s cooking class at Origen and it was an excellent, hands on experience. It included a trip to Oaxaca's Central de Abastos Market.
We also loved the salsa made table side and the taste of the white almond mole at Casa Oaxaca; a flavor so delicious that Patsy’s decided to prepare her own version of this mole. This week, we’re looking forward to the cooking of Chef Thalia Barrios García at Levadura de Olla Restaurante who comes from San Mateo Yucutindoo, a small village in Oaxaca’s southern mountains. Chef Thalia Barrios García makes a tomato salad very similar to that of Chef Arturo Sandoval at Atrio in SMA. I’m totally blaming Chef Sandoval for my sudden addiction to veggies, which my mother said I never ate, with a very popular and creative menu of vegetables on Atrio’s menu today including artichokes swimming in butter, asparagus covered with almonds and orange crust, stuffed, rolled beets and of course, his tomato salad. After a rather disappointing start to this trip with only 2 out of 5 high end restaurants delivering ,we’re ready for some big surprises this next week including Jose. Stay tuned.