Postcard from Oaxaca: Two upscale restaurants not to miss

My regular followers are probably abandoning me as I obsess about the foods of Oaxaca, but I really want to have posts with photos to help people visiting Oaxaca for a shorter period of time make decisions about where to dine. Besides, we’re about to head home, so this blog will soon resume its San Antonio-centric focus.

We almost skipped Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante this trip. Don’t. Five years ago, we found it a little boring and stuffy compared to newer places. But the rooftop setting is spectacular; the service standards are resort-like; the stuffiness has evaporated; and the overall experience transcends any minor quibbles.

The salsa is made tableside to customize the heat, and the crumbly cheese tostada arriving with it was a perfect accompaniment. Our two salads (read more about Oaxacan salads here) came with diverse cheeses and interesting fresh ingredients. They were, however, horribly over-dressed; definitely ask for the dressing on the side.

Casa Oaxaca’s shrimp tostada was mounded high. The turkey mole was a rather straightforward, traditional presentation – good but not over-the-top memorable. There are more inventive sounding, and more expensive, entrees available. Go for an extremely pleasant, worth-lingering-over experience.

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Things the kitchen turned out in the tiny inner courtyards of Origen amazed me. Cold dollops of beet granita contrasted well with roasted beets and pillowy mounds of foamed goat cheese in one salad. An interesting mixture of celery leaves, squash blossoms and purslane actually grabbed more attention then the tender pulpo topping it. A grilled romaine salad was overpowered a bit by the rich sauce, but every bit disappeared. More lima beans in it next time, please.

A poached egg was perched in a soup bowl before the toasted garbanzo soup was ladled atop it. Another cooling granita, this one with hints of rose, topped a shrimp and fish ceviche. Medallions of smoky pork had been wrapped with lean bacon and hoja santa leaves before a mole colorado was added. Oh, and the the flavors of a huitlacoche risotto ringed with foam were incredibly good. Go to Origen at least twice.

Buen provecho!

 

Postcard from Oaxaca: Slipping into comfortable old habits

La Biznaga was our favorite place to head to for meals five years ago, and it remains so on this visit. Comfortably casual, contemporary Mexican cuisine.

No matter what our food moods are, the menu has something on it to fit. Salads are stunning (see this earlier post); soups are interesting and flavorful. Menu del dia offerings are generous, and now the kitchen even makes smaller dishes from the “deli” available to order in the restaurant.

If that were not enough, we think La Biznaga hands-down makes the best margarita in town – tart, deep and potent. And we’ve sampled many.

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Plus, the servers bring you Oaxacan chocolates with your check.

Postcard from Oaxaca: Grasshoppers leap from barfood to gourmet

A grasshopper that sleeps will soon awake in a lizard’s mouth.

African proverb

Given the way grasshoppers can leap, wonder how anyone catches all the mounds of grasshoppers, chapulines, the vendors offer for sale in the markets of Oaxaca.

Debbie Hadley points out on about.com:

If you’ve ever tried to catch a grasshopper, you know how far they can jump to flee danger. If humans could jump the way grasshoppers do, we would easily leap the length of a football field or more. How do they jump so far? It’s all in those big, back legs. A grasshopper’s hind legs function like miniature catapults. When it wants to jump, the grasshopper contracts its large flexor muscles slowly, bending its hind legs at the knee joint. A special piece of cuticle within the knee acts as a spring, storing up all that potential energy. When the grasshopper is ready to jump, it relaxes the leg muscles, allowing the spring to release its energy and catapulting its body into the air.

Plus, they can fly.

Since ancient times, people in the hills and valleys of Oaxaca have consumed insects of various kinds. They are a widely available source of protein.

Grasshoppers, small locusts, can do an incredible amount of damage, the sort of damage resembling the plagues of the Bible. If a grasshopper consumes half its body weight in plants everyday, imagine what swarms can do, the kind of swarms that blocked out the sun in parts of the Midwest during 1931.

In the United States, 2010 was a worry-some year once again in the Midwest. But farmers have a superhero helping them fight such invasions. Charles L. Brown is the American czar of grasshoppers, the national policy manager for Grasshopper Control for the United States Department of Agriculture. And among his arsenal of weapons is metarhizium acridum, a mycoinsecticide. This is regarded as a form of “natural” control using entomopathogenic fungi to invade the grasshoppers bodies, take them over and kill them.

Sounds like your worst nightmare, body-invasion-type of horror film to me. Attack of the Fungi.

Makes the Mexican solution much more palatable as an intelligent form of insect control, perfect for organic gardeners everywhere.

Suppose all of those grasshoppers in the marketplace had been left to hop wherever they wanted, ravaging crops along the way? Instead they are being eaten. After being toasted on a comal with chiles and garlic and seasoned with salt and lime, the crunchy treats can be gobbled up by the handful like popcorn or wrapped in tortillas.

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Although I never cared much for the greasy version offered in bars to accompany mezcal, I’m totally open to consumption in more upscale eateries. The enormous shrimp atop a nopal and roasted kale salad at La Olla were crawling with them, and they swarmed the ancho chile relleno at Los Danzantes.

And, true confession, we’ve consumed more insects than just grasshoppers. The Mister’s plate at El Origen was sprinkled with tasty ground black ants, chicatanas.

Oh, and you remember the nasty squirmy-looking worm in the bad bottles of rot-gut mezcal people used to bring home from Mexico as more of a joke? Well, he’s come out of the bottle and onto plates as well. A maguey worm, gusano del maguey, is actually a caterpillar that feeds on the heart of maguey, or agave, plants before emerging as an Aegiale hesperiaris butterfly. The more common red worms, chinicuiles, larvae of a moth that inhabit agave, are ground up with salt and chile to accompany a glass of mezcal, which has gone upscale as well.

Salud!