Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Flavors to rouse the dead

Levanta muertos (awaken the dead). The spicy hot seafood soup at Cabuche hooked the Mister simply with its name, and it lived up to it. Two years ago it seemed as though Cabuche was a cloned offspring of La Biznaga, but now the restaurant has asserted its own distinctive character. Cabuche’s offerings are more diverse than its menu might indicate at first glance because of the ability to customize tacos, tostadas and tlayudas with selections from a long list of house guisados. Oh, almost forgot to mention: great margaritas and generous pours of wine are offered in the small cozy interior or patio.

We know the photo of El Olivo Gastrobar‘s arroz negro is unappealing, but look closely. Cloaked in the inky black sauce is a rich array of seafood. Wearing black definitely is recommended for consumers of this dish. Lazier than the Mister, I much prefer the plump, pre-peeled shrimp topped with jamon in a flavorful Pernod bath. These dishes are ample enough for sharing and pairing with a shared salad or tapas.

An unusual amuse bouche of what they call “fish meal” gets dropping into Zandunga Sabor Istmeno off to a good start, particularly if accompanied by a hibiscus mezcal cocktail called La Llorona. Watercress and roasted peanuts add interesting textural dimensions to Zandunga’s guacamole. The ceviche is fresh, and the pork falling-off-the-bone tender. The vegetable-starved can find a mountainous platter of simply prepared vegetables on the menu.

We had resisted the call of a French-style bakery, Boulenc, in prior years but now find ourselves huge fans. We first stopped by for loaves of incredibly good breads, and I was particularly pleased to find “chunky” peanut butter for my apples at breakfast – particularly as the ingredient list for the peanut butter reads simply “peanuts.” The pizza oven beckoned us next, but the spinach focaccia and vegetable bahn mi are among the best sandwiches anywhere. Never walk out of Boulenc without treating yourself to an affogato made with espresso poured over savory rosemary gelato.

We had trouble locating the new home of El Morocco but were rewarded with the same wonderful caramelized onions topping the couscous. The stacked eggplant, roasted sweet potato and herbed goat cheese that arrived under the title of moussaka was unexpected, but a lighter innovative approach.

The main reason to visit Mezquite is the pleasant rooftop patio. The food presentation is attractive, and I wonder if anyone has ever been able to consume the entire enormous tlayuda with cecina unassisted. Staff seemed to struggle with the logistics of the two-floor set-up, and delivering a spoonful of salsa at a time to a table of Texans meant a multitude of extra trips.

The patio is beautiful and service old-school-formal perfect at Las Quince Letras. The Mister loved his meat platter there and would gladly have returned. The pescado en papelote (foil?) left me disappointed though. Maybe next trip we will return, and I will switch my order to their famed chile en nogada.

Other featured photos are from Casa Taviche and La Popular.

Oh, and the surprise bonus on the trip: a bowl full of unexpectedly good plump shrimp with garlic and chiles snagged at the airport restaurant just prior to our always-too-soon departure from Oaxaca.

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 Oaxaca, Mexico: Final restaurant round-up

Rooftop restaurants in Oaxaca are so seductive because, aside from the churches, the scale of the architecture is low. The views are of the streetscape below and the colorful tile domes silhouetted against mountainous backdrops.

Mezquite Gastronomia y Destilado fits in that category, plus, the menu is appealing and mezcal cocktails are refreshing. The amuse bouche of elote esquisito leaves you wondering if you could simply order a huge bowl. The appetizer of chunky guacamole was way more than the two of us could finish, but so good we did try. An ahi tuna tostada was perfect for a warm afternoon, and the cochinita pibil sandwich is a hearty meal. Seafood topping linguini was fresh and plentiful, and the coconut flan dessert with a mezcal sauce disappeared quickly.

The open second floor of Tr3s 3istro overlooks the zocolo, perfect for people-watching. The noises from the enormous public square below can be overwhelming, but only for the jaded. Mexicans tend to sit in the back of the restaurant to avoid the noise, freeing up the ringside seats for those of us wanting to take in the ever-changing scene. The service at Tr3s is polished and professional, but, for some reason, we ordered two salmon dishes. The fillets were cooked perfectly, but seemed so boring in comparison to everything else we had been eating. Our fault, not the restaurant’s. Definitely think it is worth visiting and ordering something more Oaxacan. And, there’s the perk of that plaza perch.

Mexita Restaurante, on the other hand, is out of the main tourist zone. One of our favorite things about this Italian restaurant is that the chef makes his own red wine. The arugula salads are always fresh and come in three sizes; the smallest one is enough for two. The seafood topping one pizza was so good, but it completely turned the center of the pie to soup. The house pizza loaded with arugula and blanketed with prosciutto, though, was perfect.

El Destilado Tapas Bar and Restaurant is known for its multi-course dinners of small plates, which we did not have an opportunity to experience. The huge portion of ceviche we tried at lunch time at the mezcal bar was quite fresh and flavorful.

Pilar Cabrera of Restaurante La Olla has been offering cooking classes at Casa de los Sabores for years. We opted for simply getting waited on and fed at La Olla. Had not expected the chiles pasillas rellenos in tacos to be fried, but the deeply complex flavors of chiles pasillas stand up to batter much better than fresh poblanos. The fish was good, but the stars of the meal were tender, grilled pulpo tostadas.

El Morocco Restaurante provides a total change of pace. Caramelized onions topping many of the couscous dishes add a whole different dimension of flavor to them.

La Popular is indeed popular, but I got off to a bad start there. Part of its reputation rests upon it salads and vegetables, particularly grilled eggplant. None were listed on the blackboard. I asked if there were any salads, and the waitress simply said “no.” Vegetables? She again said “no” with no other explanation. So I moved onto other choices. The Mister raved about his torta, but the shrimp quesadillas were completely flavorless. The nicely provided condiments perked them up considerably, but, after so many extremely great rustic corn tortillas elsewhere, these were simply wimps. Right after our dishes were served, handsome salads started appearing at tables around us. When asked about them, the waitress said the kitchen did not offer them until 3 p.m. So, maybe give La Popular a try, but don’t go in at 2:45; wait until 3 p.m.

El Pochote Organic Market in the Xochimilco neighborhood was two blocks from our apartment in Oaxaca. The Friday and Saturday market is patronized more for its food booths than quantities of fresh produce. There are ample tables in the shade, but we tended to pick up tamales wrapped in banana leaves and chickpea-and-greens frittatas for later meals at home. On Fridays, El Pochote seems to attract mainly ex-pats, but Saturdays bring out local families. Shopping certainly is enhanced by the mezcal tastings offered by two of the market’s vendors.

Hope the earlier posts and this help you plan your agenda in Oaxaca.