Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Filling my belly with la comida corrida at La Olla

I first heard about La Olla from Karen and Steve, the foodie-couple I met in the cooking class at ICO. They were here for two weeks, and they ate the comida corrida, or the lunch prix-fixe meal, at La Olla almost everyday. They raved about the freshness of the ingredients, the variety of flavors, the awe with which they faced every new dish. They even took the cooking class at the related bed-and-breakfast.

I celebrated my first Monday out of school and out of my homestay by going to La Olla, determined to try the famed comida corrida. I had been a bit disappointed by my first meal there, a farewell dinner we had for a friend who was moving on to Chiapas and eventually Guatemala and Honduras to study women’s peace movements. My tortilla soup had been tasty, but the tacos nopales (cactus) had been boring, and the chocolate cake and cheesecake my friends had for dessert were dry and overcooked.

The comida corrida I had on Monday, however, was absolutely stunning. For 70 pesos, or a little less than $7, I had a four-course meal with a glass of agua de jamaica (hibiscus flower) and a substantial bread basket. The food was straightforward and simple, but done with such care, it was like eating at the home of an extremely talented cook.

The bread basket came with homemade tortilla chips, a spicy, dark salsa, and a little cup of pickled vegetables that gave some comfort to me with my increasing kimchi cravings. Did you know you can pickle a baby potato?

The comida corrida, however, officially began with a refreshing salad of lightly steamed and cubed chayote and matchsticks of jicama. The vinaigrette was light but flavorful, and I was amazed by the tiny bits of radish that added just enough contrasting color.

I was already pretty full of tortilla chips and pickled vegetables, but I still ate every spoonful of the chickpea puree soup, in which they’d placed half a hard-boiled egg. So many of the soups I’ve had here have this indescribable quality, probably from hierba santa or some other herb that I’m not familiar with, that adds an earthy dimension to otherwise simple soups, making them completely addictive.

And then I had a choice of beef with scallions or a chile stuffed with tuna. I chose the beef and ended up with a thin fillet of beef overlaid with sautéed onions with a nice slice of fried cheese and scallions in a slightly creamy sauce. I think the cheese was queso fresco, and I was happy to see it could fry as successfully as halloumi. The cream should have been too rich, but it wasn’t in balance with the sautéed scallions. Oaxacan beef is far from tender, but if you like a good chew, and I do, you would love this dish.

I no longer had the pressure of being a guest in someone’s home, but I ate it all and then finished off the guava pie dessert as well, which was tart with a good crumbly, graham-cracker-like crust and a huge improvement on the failed desserts I’d tried earlier. I like to imagine the waiters were impressed by my prowress, but sadly, no one applauded me, the way my friends Danica and Sharon were applauded in China. No matter, I don't need outside recognition to be proud of my accomplishments.

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