Way Out Oaxaca
[from October 2007 issue]
Many years ago, my mother and I visited Oaxaca, taking a tour to the outlying pyramids, a great tourist destination at the time. We were charmed by the antiquity of the city and by the fulsome aromas of simmering black beans and other foodstuffs percolating away on a stovetop nearby. But my artistic mother was less than charmed by the influx of mass-made American trinkets swamping the folklore-arts marketplace. She said so to the couple sharing our taxi ride to the pyramids, and the husband grew very quiet. I am, he said rather stiffly, the general manager of Woolworth's in Mexico, and we bring in all those "trinkets."
So imagine how many memories the restaurant Casa Oaxaca stirs up: black beans, overstuffed tacos, street-side hawkers, and the marvelous moles (pronounced "mo-lays") indigenous to the city. Indeed, according to Mexican legend, the original mole -- a paste of ground unsweetened chocolate, chilies, and an assortment of herbs that was dark and musky -- was created in a local convent in the 1600s as the basis for a robust turkey stew, served with loads of corn tortillas, all designed to delight the palate of a visiting dignitary.
Fortunately for the Mexicophiles among us, Casa Oaxaca's kitchen -- while serving a gathering of rather nontraditional fare -- packs the menu with at least four different kinds of moles, including the dark-chocolate version that the early nuns supposedly created. As it turns out, Oaxaca is known as the "land of seven moles," so Casa Oaxaca's menu speaks well for the integrity of the kitchen.
What else goes on here? That depends on your mood. For one, the long downstairs bar makes the perfect destination for the young, thirsty, hip crowd who like their Margaritas chilled and with plenty of lime juice and salt rimming the glass. It all looks rather festive, brightened by its dark pumpkin colors and outside lights. But the serious eating business seems to go on upstairs, where the clientele consists of a mix of downtown chic and Adams-Morgan hip.
Because Casa Oaxaca opens only for dinner, folks seem to store up their calories for an evening blast, with most tables crowded with a very slap-happy crowd. Shades of a cheery sunset color the walls, with an odd mock-Botero painting and an immense bull's eye mural to accent the decor. As for accents, more than 20 different tequilas and 10 different beers accent the menu, engaging patrons to become even more festive.
The sister of the Arlington restaurant, Guajillo, which sports on-the-border dishes, Casa Oaxaca seems somehow more authentic, but maybe that's because the kitchen fries up grasshoppers -- currently a favorite Mexican snack -- and flambées them with Oaxacan cheese and a guajillo sauce, all served for easy wraps with fresh tortillas. This is the second city restaurant that treats Washingtonians to this odd gustatory treat, the other being José Andrés's Oyamel.
That's an appetizer offering, but if fried grasshoppers leave you cold, consider the ravioli de huitlacoche, or ravioli filled with corn fungus -- the Aztecs apparently preferred to think of this as an edible mushroom, says one food writer-- and swimming in a pleasantly mild and very creamy poblano sauce. You may be tempted to add an appetizer that's light and green, and you think "salad." But the salad of caramelized pecans with figs on a bed of greens turns out to be all aroma with little more than greens beneath the upper garnishing.
It makes little sense to come to come to an Oaxaca-inspired restaurant and not eat mole, and it seems the kitchen challenges patrons to dig in. No, the traditional turkey mole is not one of the entrées, but you will find a mole poblano and the traditional black mole with white meat chicken, both of which should win many converts. For some reason, the menu describes the mole sauce as served over the main meat: tradition calls for cooking the meat in the sauce to absorb all its flavor. Other options include assorted taco varieties, very unlike what the typical Tex-Mex eatery serves -- and two beef and two seafood dishes.
Once you've mopped up all the black beans and mole sauce with the fresh corn tortillas, you might think it's time to pay up and run. But don't skip the capirotada, a Mexican bread pudding that someone once told me translates as "nun's sigh." That may or may not be true, but you will definitely sigh over this modern version of cubed and buttery bread molded with bits of fruit and nuts and served with a dollop of ice cream. It's so sinful it will make you blush, but you will be very happy you ate it.
Casa Oaxaca / 2106 18th St., NW; tel., (202) 387-2272. Hours: Tue.-Sun., 5-11:30pm. Entrée price range: $12-$21. Major credit cards.
Copyright (c) 2007 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107 “fair use”).
Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
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