Postcards from Oaxaca, Mexico: Restaurant Alphabet Vol. II from Le to Tacos

Above: Guava mole with shrimp and battered cauliflower at Levadura de Olla

Thalía Barrios Garcia is young, 27 years old, yet she has worked her way from a small Oaxacan village to own two widely acclaimed restaurants in the historic center of the state capital. One, Cocina de Humo, is intimate, providing a chance to observe traditional methods of cooking, but you need to make a reservation in advance. So we tried her Levadura de Olla instead.

Tomatoes. The gorgeous display of heirloom tomatoes immediately announces produce is important here. And a woman kept busy flipping fresh tortillas you know are made the ancient way, from dried corn boiled down with ash, nixtamal.

A cilantro mezcal mojito and a gourdful of refreshing pulque were my chosen accompaniments. Green mole with white beans, squash and wild herbs placed a spotlight on seemingly humble ingredients. Our favorite dish was the way-too-small-to-share sweet potato topped with dried fruit and seeds; it left us wishing we had ordered two.

Overall the experience made us feel the same as Quinze Letras. We greatly appreciate what these two excellent chefs and several others in Oaxaca are doing to elevate awareness of and respect the importance of these ancient cooking methods, but we tend to want more modern takes on them.

So many chefs from El Norte make pilgrimages to Oaxaca to restaurants such as these and to sample humble street fare. Then they return and alter the way Mexican food is presented at home. Thank goodness. Americans are starting to demand and receive fresh tortillas made on premise.

What would shock most chefs or vendors of street fare in Oaxaca is how much it costs to “import” traditional dishes. The relatively new Chapulin Cantina in Austin, which I have not visited, charges $22 for a tlayuda with sausage. Nixta Taqueria charges $5 for a nixtamal tortilla with a small amount of panela cheese. Expensive yes, but good. It is welcome to some of us Texans to have elements of this rich and varied cuisine creep northward.

Above: Levadura de Olla

In Oaxaca, I prefer the contemporary tweaks La Biznaga or Los Danzantes adds to regional dishes. The patio of Los Danzantes is among the most handsome in the city, and the ancho chile stuffed with huitlacoche (corn fungus), pureed pumpkin and goat cheese is among my favorite dishes. Los Danzantes has a mezcal and wine shop on Jardin Conzatti where we can find our favorite Proyecto 125 red wines.

Above: Los Danzantes

Almost next door to our second apartment rental, we happily discovered a new artisan bakery, Pan con Madre. I understand that since our departure, the cafe has begun to periodically offer pizzas as well.

Above: Pan con Madre

And another spot new for us, Taco Sireno on El Llano. No upscale atmosphere on the small back patio, but it would be hard not to fall in love as soon as the complimentary warm and spicy cup of shrimp broth arrives at your table. Everything was presented artfully, and we enjoyed the ceviche, a blue tuna tostada with fried leeks and a tender and flavorful presentation of octopus on blue corn tortillas. Any seafood lover should head there.

Above: Taco Sireno

Hate to leave you salivating, but the next restaurant temptations will be from Sicily and are far from ready to post. Postcards are edging closer to catching up with our travels.

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