Sunday, March 24, 2024

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.