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Sunday December 17 2017
Dining Overview in Oaxaca: Part 2
Author:

Alvin Starkman
oaxacadream@hotmail.com


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To continue with our story on eating in Oaxaca (a few months back), I will now provide you some reviews to the top restaurants in town.

El Tigre
Owners Hilarino and Sara pray for the day electricity arrives at their combined roadside eatery and mezcal factory. But for the rest of us, it can’t get any more authentic, rural and good! Imagine daily delivery of produce and meat, with everything prepared before your eyes on an open flame over the grill. Appetizers are memelitas and quesadillas. The selection is standard: tasajo (beef), cecina (pork, lightly dusted with chili), chorizo (Mexican sausage), or eggs, in each case served with one or more of salad, beans or rice and tortillas brought to the table one or two at a time, as they’re readied. Take photos and chat with the owners; mezcal is free.

Caldo de Piedra
Campesinos working the land or tending flocks in the river valleys and hills would stop fish for trout or gather lobster-like langostino after the first May rains, and then cook their bounty in an unusual way. They would place their catch in a half gourd filled with river water and fresh aromatic grasses, heat rocks from the banks to red-hot, then place them in the bowl and watch their meal poach. Caldo de Piedra ceremoniously replicates the custom, in a large open-air kitchen. The menu is restricted to generously filled quesadillas and similar finger appetizers, and your main course: a choice of shrimp, red snapper, or a combination of the two, prepared as it has been for generations. Watch as your individual serving of raw fish is placed in a gourd with selection of chile, onion, and leafy herb. A tomato-based liquid is added. Baseball-size river stones are gingerly plucked from the flames with a large wooden tong, and then placed in the gourd, and your meal begins to cook. Each flavor remains distinctly discernable since ingredients have been combined only moments earlier. Your meal is then simmered to perfection. Caldo de Piedra gets the prize for most unique of any eatery in the central valleys of Oaxaca.

La Olla
Chef Pilar Cabrera has successfully straddled the often slippery slope between catering to the tourist trade and providing business owners with a relaxed environment in which to eat, meet and greet. The main level is furnished with simple wooden tables and chairs, an adobe-brick and hand-painted tile hearth as focal point. The upstairs bar has live music on weekends. Both levels are adorned with art for sale by local artists. The restaurant’s trademark is its ability to meld traditional Oaxacan food with offerings for the health conscious. For example, fajitas consist of chicken breast grilled to perfection, with each strip of vegetable maintaining appropriate crunchiness, liquid more in the nature of stew juices than canola, and Italian seasoning spiked with fresh cilantro; or two good-sized portions of properly pouched snapper wrapped in aromatic hierba santa, served on a plate ringed with salsa guajillo, along sides of plantain, nopal cactus and jícama (yam bean).

La Biznaga
La Biznaga is a must for travelers to the city, despite its reputation for sometimes questionable service. The atmosphere is comfortable, with well-programmed jazz, Mexican, and soft rock music in an open courtyard setting. Management pulls off the beatnik genre feeling through aloof wait staff and menu selections cryptically written on enormous chalkboards. It’s all quite conducive to healthy imbibing: the wonderful selection of mezcals, deadly margaritas, and superbly prepared mojitos. Try the light and tangy broth with assortment of wild mushrooms, onion and chile poblano; squash blossom and quesillo enveloped in tender hierba santa leaf served with refried beans and diced tomato; crunchy fried tortilla horns stuffed with seasoned, sautéed hibiscus flower, presented with guacamole and chipotle; grilled plantain-wrapped chicken breast on a bed of purée of guava; or grilled salmon served over a bed of cilantro pesto.

Vieja Lira Trattoria & Pizzeria
You’re drawn in by soft jazz; comforted by deep cranberry walls, pine tables and cushioned chairs stained dark to enhance the bistro-like setting; and enveloped by floor length draperies well-matched to the magenta tones. Service is swift and attentive, with drinks arriving almost as readily as the soft, dense bread—hand-cut for drizzling with herb-infused olive oil, or paste-like salsa de chile de árbol. Try appetizers of skewered garlic shrimp and bruschetta of warm chicken liver pâté—almost as good as my grandmother’s schmaltz-laden recipe. Even if you’re not here for pizza, share one with your group. The tortilla-thin crust is remarkable. With the restaurant’s seafood weighting, try the fettuccini with squid, octopus, shrimp, scallop and local langostino in its shell. Or the seafood bouillabaisse, a medley of seafood and fish, juices nicely spiced with a blend of fresh local herbs, served in an oversized bowl. Owner Simone has matched the wines well, so if he’s available, ask for his suggestion.

La Catrina de Alcalá
Owner/artist Rolando Rojas has created an exquisite combined gallery and restaurant in a courtyard setting. The restaurant prides itself in the use of seasonal, locally produced ingredients. The setting is airy and comfortable, with tasteful art gracing otherwise stark, minimalist walls. While both comida and cena are offered, and rank among the city’s finest, La Catrina has developed a dedicated brunch crowd. Dishes include eggs and omelets, traditional Oaxacan breakfast fare such as enchiladas, tamales, chilaquiles and typical Oaxacan grilled meats with garnishes, both unique and traditional salads, and sandwiches featuring spinach, goat cheese, pecan, apple, basil, mushroom and squash blossom.

Los Danzantes
Los Danzantes provides a pleasing all-round dining experience, combining exquisite ambiance with top notch cuisine. Accessed by a long wooden plank-way leading to the back of an historic building, the restaurant is accented with smartly designed, ceiling-high adobe walls, and a small pond. An intimate appetizer lounge with plush leather chairs and sofa can be reserved, or towards the end of your meal ask to conclude there with drinks and desserts. Otherwise reserve it for a late night appetizers: venison tostadas
with habanero chile sauce; shredded duck tacos with avocado and chile morita sauce; or chile crusted tuna sashimi with soy vinaigrette. Pastas include ravioli stuffed with your choice of duck, ricotta or a delicacy known as huitlacoche (corn mold); vegetarian lasagna with basil béchamel and tomato sauce; and thin noodles with smoky chipotle, red onion, cheese and sour cream. For fish, consider seared tuna steak with mango, or coconut crusted shrimp with sweet and sour apricot and citrus sauce. Otherwise, BBQ duck wrapped in banana leaf; beef marinated with mezcal, pineapple and apple; pan roasted filet with sweet potato au gratín with red wine and caramelized onion; or sweet and sour ribs with fried plantain and black beans.

Casa Oaxaca el Restaurante
For Oaxacans planning a special occasion, or tourists wanting a final evening of fine dining, Casa Oaxaca is patronized more than any other high end diner. The city’s literati, visiting international personalities and politicians supply the restaurant’s ritz and glitz. But there’s good reason: décor is tastefully modern; dining room is intimate, with roof top option for those wanting a breeze and view, and food is continental with Oaxacan accent. For appetizers, try the seafood platter or go native with jícama tacos filled with huitlacoche, string cheese and grasshoppers. You can’t go wrong with any of the soups or salads, each of the former uniquely Mexican in its use of primary ingredients, herbs and spices. Choice of fish varies daily, but for flavor, top billing goes to the daily catch seasoned with lime, caper and tomato marmalade. Under the meat and game grouping, choose from beef filet, lamb, duck and venison. Even pasta has a Oaxacan flare. Try the cannelloni with quince and squash blossom, or the fettuccini with seafood sauce accented by aromatic epazote. Under the Oaxacan Specialties category, each of a selection of Oaxaca’s famous moles is well matched with suckling pig, veal tongue, venison, turkey, chicken or duck.

For more information contact Alvin Starkman at: oaxacadream@hotmail.com

 

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