Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Photo menu of a few local spots

Have some friends flying into Oaxaca about now, so wanted to do a quick photo menu for them of a few flavorful options. Our trip in August was shorter than most, so we did not visit quite as many places as normal.

As always, La Biznaga remains on the top of our list. The best margarita in the world is a major drawing card. Whether it’s for simple quesadillas for a light lunch or an upscale rare tuna atop roasted asparagus and crowned with an avocado mountain, we always leave happy. We had never tried the fish ceviche (featured photo) before or the stuffed Portobello mushroom and recommend both.

The patio of Los Danzantes is one of the most pleasant dining spots in Oaxaca, and it is a great place to sample mezcal cocktails. A major plunge into bold Oaxacan flavors is the ancho chile filled with huitlacoche (corn smut) and goat cheese atop a puree of platano, sweetened with a piloncillo sauce and swarming with a few of those prized chapulines (grasshoppers).

Rarely hungry at night, no wonder, we almost missed that El Olivo Gastrobar is open for lunch on Sundays. While popular for its tapas, it features two of our favorite dishes, arroz negro colored with squid ink and filled with seafood; and luscious large shrimp and serrano ham in a pernod sauce. Both could easily be split.

No fancy cocktails, but a nice house mezcal is offered at Casa Taviche. The draw is a delicious three-course lunch for 75 pesos. That’s right, less than $5. Everything is so fresh and well presented, from salads to small desserts. The choices for starters and entrees vary daily and usually include meat, fish and vegetarian options, such as chicken with poblano chiles or a vegetable tarta of layers of sweet potato and spinach. On weekends, Casa Taviche prepares perfect pork tacos, both cochinita pibil and al pastor.

And, on the other extreme, there is Criollo. A child of the famed chef of Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme in New York City, Criollo gets quite the buzz in food media. We simply were far from blown away by the flavors. I admit we got off on the wrong foot when they were out of the $42 red wine at lunch time and could not offer us another for less than $1500 pesos, a major jump. I’ll link you directly to the New York Times write-up so as not to prejudice you. Lunch at Criollo is a leisurely seven-course well-presented sampling of dishes using local seasonal Oaxacan ingredients prepared using traditional techniques. Aside from our disappointment on the wine front, it’s not outrageously expensive. But we simply enjoyed our experiences at other places much more. To me, what the young chefs of Mixtli are pulling off in their railcar parked in San Antonio is far more interesting.

Hating to sound negative again, but last year we recommended Mezquite. The upstairs rooftop is such a nice setting, and the amuse-bouche of corn esquite is a nice starter. The cochnita pibil was a mushy mess of a sandwich, but the tuna tostada was still nice and refreshing. Mezquite bills itself as a mezcal bar as well, yet the cocktails they served us were as sweet as the Shirley Temples we were offered as children. We ordered two perros oaxaquenos, described as containing mezcal artesenal, citrus and sal de guisano. They were pink edging toward red. We asked our server if we had the correct drinks; he assured us we did. We ordered additional lime juice on the side. After adding an ounce of lime juice to each, they were still too sweet to drink. Go for the view, and maybe order straight mezcal.

Have to sign off now. All these pictures made me hungry.

Postcard from Campeche, Mexico: With abundant seafood, an ideal place to spend a meatless Lent

For anyone giving up meat for Lent, Campeche City would be an ideal place to spend the 40 days. Seafood is inexpensive and abundant. Finding fresh ceviche is no problem, and the huge shrimp are wonderful. A local favorite preparation is coconut shrimp, but menus offered many other options. Likewise, pulpo was prepared in vastly varying recipes.

My absolute favorite seafood dish was the stacked salpicon de mero (a fish confusingly translated sometimes as grouper and sometimes as Chilean sea bass) offered at La Parrilla Colonial. Our top vote-getter for shrimp was a grilled wheel of shrimp topped with a cheese and spinach sauce served at Bavit 59. Other standouts included the cubes of ahi tuna topped with avocado at Bavit 59; camarones de coco and tostadas topped with pulpo al achiote at Restaurante Don Gustavo; and the achiote tuna tacos at La Parrilla Colonial.

And then there is dogfish. Americans have been slow on the uptake to eat dogfish, even though the small shark is commonplace from Maine to Florida. Fishermen harvesting them on the East Coast ship them off to England. The English apparently do not possess the same degree of seafood snobbery and gobble them up in pubs frying them for fish and chips. This lack of a market in the United States probably is a good thing because it takes a long time for these spiny dogfish to make babies; their gestation period is 18 to 24 months.

In Campeche, however, dogfish or cazon, is celebrated and used in numerous traditional dishes. Pan de cazon resembles stacked enchiladas. Black refried beans are spread on multiple layers of corn tortillas, topped with stewed, shredded dogfish and then covered with a tomato sauce prior to baking. Another centuries-old recipe features chiles xcatic, a regional yellow pepper, filled with stewed cazon. Although flavorful, we were not bowled over by either of these complex preparations. But this was not because of the flavor of dogfish. The cazon dish most to our liking was the simplest one – fresh dogfish tacos. We enjoyed these as an appetizer at Los Delfines, one of a strip of casual seafood palapa restaurants clustered together on one end of the malecon, a concrete boardwalk stretching miles along the bayfront.

We did eat meat several times. The Mister was smitten by the chicken with chaya, Mayan tree spinach, at La Parrilla Colonial. In addition to an elevated preparation of cochinita pibil, the kitchen turns out a flavorful taco al pastor for less than $1. Luan Restaurante Café offers a remarkably good milanesa telera, similar to a bolillo, but the cafe’s hours varied wildly. We broke away from regional specialties several times to enjoy Italian food at Scattola 59.

Both Luan and Scattola 59 endeared themselves to us because they carried multiple bottles of reasonably priced red wine. Some of the best restaurants in town made us feel as though they were conning tourists, as in us. They regularly claimed to be out of wines we ordered, with the only ones available as substitutes priced $5 or even $10 more. This touristy treatment made it hard to feel at home in the place we were staying for three weeks. A waiter at a boutique hotel should not be expected to beg customers to post positive reviews on TripAdvisor. And, in addition to upselling wine at another restaurant, the Mister had to endure a 15-minute parade of expensive Tequila offerings before finally being served the one he originally requested, strangely presented perched in a Johnnie Walker glass.

Aside from warning you to beware of or prepare to endure those peeves, we’d recommend any of the mentioned restaurants. The food in Campeche is distinctively different – in a good way – from any other place we have been in Mexico. Sure wish I’d encounter salpicon de mero in San Antonio.