Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tlamanalli in Teotitlan del Valle

So I went to Teotitlan del Valle to look visit some rug workshops and eat at the famed Zapotecan restaurant, Tlamanalli, but ended up instead just eating at Tlamanalli with three guys who went to business school in London together, and who are now taking a roadtrip through Mexico, a la “Y tu mama tambien,” but without the drugs and the hot older woman. Life is so funny when you’re traveling alone.

This whole past week was a bit of an adjustment. I've started volunteering at Puente a la Salud Comunitaria, an organization that promotes amaranth as a way of fighting malnutrition in rural Oaxaca. Although it’s been good to have some structure in my life, I’m now at the phase of my adventures where every friend from ICO is gone, Erin and Elena are gone, and I now have to face what it really means to travel alone. The upside is that life is really cheap when you have no friends. The downside is that you have no friends.

Luckily, the one thing I am good at doing alone is eating. I feel so awkward at a bar by myself, and a club would be my worst nightmare, but give me some utensils and something to eat, and my hunger will squash any feelings of embarrassment. I had asked my neighbor if she wanted to go to Tlamanalli with me today, but she already had plans to visit a mezcal factory. I thought about waiting to make the trip until Mimi and Alex get here, but then I thought, what if it’s so good, I want to go again?

Teotitlan del Valle is one of the small towns surrounding Oaxaca, and its cottage industry is its handwoven rugs. They’re quite expensive, as Oaxacan handicrafts go, but at the prices they charge, they still only get paid $1/hour for their labor. Some of them are garish, more than a few inexplicably incorporate Matisse’s blue woman collage cut-out, but most are beautiful, with expensive colors that come from natural sources, like the cochineal bug, which produces a deep, rich red. I’ve been tempted to buy a rug or two, but I recently decided that if I buy a rug at all this year, it will be in Morocco.

So what really drew me to Teotitlan del Valle was Tlamanalli, a restaurant that makes a mole negro that Rick Bayless describes as “what dreams are made of.” It’s a foodie pilgrimage site, raved about in the NY Times, Saveur, Chowhound, with even a Culinary Institute of America podcast of Abigail Mendoza, the owner and chef demonstrating how to make mole negro. The fact that you have to get out of Oaxaca only makes it more magical to the kind of people who like to drive around the French countryside eating at restaurants with Michelin stars.

But when I got there around 2, prime comida-time, the restaurant was empty, save for a table of three guys in their 30s. They were speaking excellent English, but with a peculiar range of accents, from slightly European to slightly British to slightly American.

When they realized I was there alone, they pulled up a chair and invited me to join them. They turned out to be Luis and Alberto, two Mexicans from the Yucatan who had studied with Jeff, the American, in London last year, and who were now on vacation together. Jeff, despite his absurdly American name, had the most un-American accent of them all, and it turned out he had grown up all over the world, including high school in Madrid, and was now living in Finland working for Nokia. He looked like a Scandinavian Boy Scout, too, a clean-cut blond with pale-blue eyes, while Luis looked like a kindly investment banker losing a bit of hair at the top of his head but not his sense of humor. Alberto, the dark, good-looking one, looked like the kind of guy that goes to business school but doesn’t think he belongs there, with a piece of jade on a red cord around his neck and talk of his surfing gear that he was taking to Puerto Escondido. They had the easy camaraderie of old friends—Jeff and Luis even had a story about having once bribed their way out of a Russian jail—and a “kitty” out of which they paid all their expenses. They had one whole day in Oaxaca before heading out to the coast, and they had driven out to Teotitlan del Valle to eat at Tlamanalli because they heard it was really good. They thought it was funny, but not strange, that I had come out there by myself to eat, that I had come out to Oaxaca by myself to eat, though Alberto did remark that I was too skinny to be such a big eater.

It was the kind of encounter that only happens when you’re traveling: easy, of-the-moment, with no expectations. There was only the mildest undercurrent of flirtation, and more out of politeness than design, like the way gay men will sometimes flirt with straight women. (I think they were straight.) They were good conversationalists, and they knew about the kinds of things I was interested in, like San Sebastian, Spain, and pig-farming and the onset of industrialized poultry production in Mexico. Usually the words “business school” trigger all kinds of prejudice in me, but they were the kind of people I might meet in New York, unlike the hippie retirees I keep meeting, and I felt almost a homesick attraction to them. Of course, in New York, I would never end up eating with three strange guys in a random town in upstate New York and then get in their car when they offered me a ride back to the city. Only in Oaxaca.

So how was the food, you ask? Wonderful. It’s a homey place, with not-so-homey prices, but everything is done with great pride and care, as in the highest of high-end restaurants. I started with a complimentary shot of mezcal that was fiery but clean. It was good the restaurant was dark, as I was wearing a sundress and I could feel my Asian flush creeping up my neck and face. I skipped the soup to save room for dessert, and went straight to the chicken in mole negro, which was thinner than any mole I’ve had before, just barely coating the chicken. Just slightly sweet, very black, but not bitter, which now that I know how to make it, just amazes me that you can burn the hell out of the seeds and then balance it so that you only retain the smoky complexity and not the bitterness. Again, it was a piece of breast with actual flavor. In the U.S., my only hope in cooking white breast meat is to keep it tender and moist, as it’s the only way to make it palatable. Here, it can even be on the verge of dryness and yet still be flavorful, something you actually want to eat.

Sadly, they didn’t have the flan of elote, so I settled on a cafĂ© de olla and a nieve of zapote negro, a fruit that Luis said looked like a green apple but with a black interior. Luis said he grew up hating it, that it gets made into a pudding in the Yucatan, but Alberto insisted that the ice cream tasted different than the zapote negro they’d eaten growing up. Jeff and I, with no childhood associations to burden us, decided it tasted like rich, sticky fig, made it into an icy sorbet.

It wasn’t cheap, among the more expensive meals I’ve had in Oaxaca, but definitely one of the most amusing. I know that I would get tired if life were only a string of encounters like this lunch, with nothing more permanent to give me ballast (sorry, what a horror of a mixed metaphor), but it’s nice to be reminded that surprises like this only happen when you’re eating alone.


Isaac said...

Aw, G.!

You do have friends -- we just aren't in Oaxaca right now! Don't let yourself feel too isolated.

AppleSister said...

Thank you for reminding me! I didn't realize how plaintive this post sounded. It was actually a very nice day, and I remember thinking how lucky I was to get to have funny encounters like this, and still have friends and family to go home to.