Thursday, June 21, 2007

Two stomachs can always eat more than one

Oaxaca is an easy place to eat alone. Obviously, there’s fabulous street food that you can always eat on a park bench, and it’s almost better to be alone when you find your face smeared with salsa and your fingers tangled in the long, stretchy strings of Oaxacan quesillo. The only people watching you are the native Oaxaquenos to whom you’re already completely foreign anyway.

So until my lovely lunch with a fellow foodie at Casa Oaxaca today, I’d almost forgotten how enjoyable it can be to sit down and share a meal, compare notes, and revel together in a new, gustatory experience. It’s like seeing a funny movie or looking out at a gorgeous vista: you want someone to hear you say, “Wow, that is really good.” It’s even better, of course, when that person agrees with you, and this was such a meal.

The restaurant is beautiful but casual, with clean white walls, wooden beams, and a courtyard that opens to the sky. It felt very still and very calm, though that might also have been because we were practically the only ones there.

Soon after we sat down, the waiter brought with a flourish a large platter of the fish available that day: mahi-mahi, grouper, dorado, tuna, and some amazing prawns. Jonathan, who claims not to like shellfish, was instantly hypnotized by the prawns. I was so flustered, I forgot to take a picture, but being with someone who takes notes at most of his meals, I felt no shame in asking the waiter, “¿Por favor, podriamos ver el plato de pescados una otra vez?”, and then whipping out my camera.

The bread basket was surprising. It was filled with fried blue corn tortillas and this very curious, nutty and delicious bread with a smear of creamy cheese and red pepper running through the loaf. It tasted like the best pimiento cheese I’d ever had—could Oaxaca and the American South share a culinary ancestor? The bread was served with a blob of decent guacamole, the springy queso fresco, and the stretchy quesillo, as well as two kinds of salsa, one that was sweet like a peppery jelly and one that was more straightforward.

The poor waiters had so little to do, they came towards our table 3-4 times before we were finally able to make our decisions.

We began with two appetizers. “Bursting with flavor” always makes me think of chewing gum commercials, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it. The “chile relleno” stuffed with ceviche and served with a sauce of passionfruit and pomegranate seeds was literally bursting with flavor. I was shocked when I took my first bite and found the chile was actually spicy, a “chile de agua.” Stuffed peppers are some of the most boring things to eat ever—they bring back memories of Yale’s dining hall—but this “chile relleno” may have fully blotted out all other memories. As nouveau as it seemed, it was so representative of what I love most about Mexican food, the riot of flavors and textures that somehow all comes together.

The bean and tortilla soup, garnished with queso fresco and avocado, was good, but not the party in your mouth of the chile relleno. Smooth, just not revelatory.

But I’d be hard pressed to say what was better, the chile relleno or the entrée of prawns served “guajillo” with a little cake of mashed plantain and chayote, capers, oyster mushrooms, and stuffed squash blossoms. The mushrooms were so fragrant, the colors so vivid, and the guajillo chile oil! The guajillo chile has become one of my favorite chiles in the past two weeks. I was already so full, but I had to eat every single one of my allotted prawns, sopping up the chile oil with every bite.

Our second entrée, the mahi-mahi with a mango-chipotle sauce, Jonathan liked better than I did. For me, it was just a little too sweet without enough kick. But it clearly had been cooked with grace and care.

Our third entrée, because how could we not order any mole, was the coloradito with turkey. Sadly, it appeared we had been served turkey breast as it was a tad too dry, but at that point, I had eaten so much, it didn’t matter. All I could do was valiantly dab a blue corn tortilla in the very deep coloradito. It was a bit less sweet than Patty’s coloradito, maybe a bit smokier, and very very fascinating. I’m shocked to be saying this, but there are days when I wonder if I like coloradito maybe, just maybe, more than mole negro.

Finally, and there was an end to all this food, we shared a guava tart served with a scoop of rose-petal nieve (sorbet) on a little fried tortilla. As Jonathan put it, it wouldn’t be Mexican without a little corn. The nieve was the first rose-petal dessert I’d had that didn’t taste like lotion, just fresh and pretty and the perfect complement to the tartness of the guava.

Like all memorable meals, it wasn’t just that the food was fantastic. The whole event felt fortuitous, the kind of thing that can only happen when you’re traveling, to eat and exclaim over a culinary delight with a relative stranger but a fellow chowhound in another country. Is this what it feels like to be a Freemason?

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