Archive for the ‘Oaxaca’ Category

Remember Senora Soledad?

April 9, 2012

She’s been immortalized! I met Senora Soledad in Oaxaca almost five years ago, and wrote up an account of my adventure learning how to make mole negro with her. A couple years later, I got this lovely email from Neal Erickson telling me what a wonderful time he’d had with Sra. Soledad as well.

And now, Soledad Ramirez is in The Atlantic magazine! The author, Grace Rubinstein, found me through the grace of Google. There is a small, selfish part of me that wishes I had written the story myself, but the rest of me is just happy that Sra. Soledad is getting the recognition she deserves.



My Very Subjective Best of Oaxaca Guide, Part II

September 25, 2007

Best Market

The most unbelievable one in Oaxaca City proper is Mercado Abastos, which is literally labyrinthine.

Mercado 20 de noviembre and Mercado Juarez south of the zocalo are definitely worth visiting, as they are always bustling with a huge array of stuff, from leather sandals to mole pastes to nieves to piñatas. Ocotlan and Tlacolula are two exciting pueblo markets, held on Friday and Sunday, respectively, that sprawl with plenty of live animals, turkeys, rabbits, goats.

Rick Bayless raves about the tamales and empanadas at Mercado de la Merced, about 8 blocks east of the zocalo, but I’ve never been because I had my own neighborhood market: Mercado Sanchez Pascuas. It’s situated between Tinoco y Palacios and Porfirio Diaz just north of Quetzalcoatl. It can seem really dead in the afternoons, but if you go in the mornings, especially on Saturday or Sunday, it’s bustling with people doing their daily marketing. This is not a country that shops once a week for groceries. In addition to the stands selling meat, fruit, cheese, and bread, there are vendors who just set up tarps outside the western entrance, selling whatever they brought in that day from their village, like roses, chiles de agua, and giant fava beans. There are two tamale sellers, the one in the middle of the meat section and another with a little table by the empanada/memela ladies near the western entrance. The one in the middle has the better tamal de mole, wrapped in banana leaf with mole negro and chicken, but the one on at the entrance has a great tamal de salsa verde, very fresh and bright.

The Mercado Organico at El Pochote on Fridays and Saturdays is also terrific, but I don’t think of it as a true market, as there’s very little fresh produce. There is, however, some of the best street food in Oaxaca, and safe for sensitive gringo stomachs. You can also buy good Real Minera brand mezcal, from a sweet man who will pour a very generous taster of anything you want to try. The Anejo and the Reserva, I think are particularly good, and the cremas, which are sweet versions flavored with everything from passionfruit to coffee, are good alternatives for people who don’t really want to be drinking mezcal. I almost always bought breads (especially the long, flat pizza-flatbreads) and Korean take-out food from Alegria de Angelis, and frequently bought the maracuya-coffee jam, the organic coffee, and pottery. The one man who consistently sells fresh produce has very beautiful lettuce and other greens, right inside the door, though it goes fast, and there are always people with unusual, striking native flowers outside the doors the same days. Don’t bother showing up before 9:30 or even 10, though—you’re in Mexico.

Mercado Hidalgo on Emilio Carranza, a block north of Belisario Dominguez, in Colonia Reforma has beautiful produce, but it’s a little out of the way for most tourists.

Best Supermarket

When you need toilet paper, dish detergent, peanut butter, and unsweetened, plain yogurt: Gigante. The one in Colonia Reforma is the spiffiest, but the one a couple of blocks west of the Basilica de la Soledad on Independencia is probably closer for most tourists.

If I just need a few things, I like going to Pitico, which is a small grocery chain scattered throughout the city, bigger than a bodega but smaller than Gigante, which is sort like Kmart. I’ve bought good chorizo there, decent produce, as well as things like paper towels, but I’ve only seen Alpura brand, unsweetened yogurt at Gigante.

Even though nearly all yogurt is sweetened (and watch out if it says “no sugar,” as it could be sweetened with Splenda), all the granola I’ve tried in Oaxaca, just bought at grocery stores, has been surprisingly unsweet and very good.

Best Bread

The vendor furthest north, or furthest to the right as you’re facing the Tinoco y Palacios entrance at Mercado Sanchez has good bread, chewy and flavorful, my favorites being the flat rolls with sesame seeds on top and the large cinnamon-raisin breads with brioche-like topknots, but only in the mornings. Pan & Co., on Constitucion at the corner of Garcia Vigil, has very good bread, including one of the best ciabattas I’ve ever had, but it’s “European artisanal style,” not Mexican. I am very fond of Fidel Integral on 20 de noviembre, south of Hidalgo, which makes whole-wheat breads that don’t taste like cardboard.

Best Coffee

Mexico produces some of the best coffee in the world, but the highest-quality tends to get exported to the U.S. and Europe, as Mexico doesn’t have the coffee culture of Italy, France, or even Starbucks-America. If you are a coffee-lover, your ordinary cup in Oaxaca will probably taste a little feeble, though if you get a chance, the traditional café de olla, flavored with piloncillo or unrefined sugar and cinnamon, can be good and strong. A lot of the little fondas in the markets will just use instant Nescafe. It is possible, though, to find places in Oaxaca that serve Mexico’s best, called Pluma Hidalgo. These two are my favorites:

1) El Pochote Mercado Organico, the woman with the stand farthest north, selling also whole-bean and ground coffee called “Maravilla de Araguz”

2) Nuevo Mundo on M. Bravo between Porfirio Diaz and Alcala.

I’ve heard Coffee Beans on Garcia Vigil, next to Café Brujula, also serves Pluma Hidalgo, and Café Antigua on Reforma north of Constitucion is also popular.

Best Street Food

So good you feel like you’re going to faint, and so hot they made my nose run: empanadas de mole amarillo and tacos de chile relleno next to Iglesia Carmen de Arriba on Garcia Vigil. But almost everything at Mercado Organico is also fantastic, especially the tostadas, the mole enchiladas, and the mole tlayuda, made with what the vendors say is a Zapotecan-style of mole. I love the tamales at Mercado Sanchez, especially the ones sold from the center of the room with the meat vendors. And I will always feel a special fondness for Sra Angelita’s esquites and elotes on the western side of El Llano (Parque Juarez), as that was where I had my first street food.

Best nieves, aguas, and paletas

If the woman selling yogurt and fruit tarts at Mercado Organico is selling strawberry-flavored nieve, get it! Otherwise, they are good but not like you’re going to die. In general, I’ve never had bad nieve, from Chonita in Mercado Juarez to El Niagara near the Basilica de Soledad to the beaches in Puerto Escondido.

The best paletas are at Popeye’s. You’ll see the orange carts all over town and there’s a proper outlet on the southside of El Llano. I tried a paleta at Michoacan once, and there was something sort of metallic-tasting, though it may not be fair to judge it based on one paleta. My favorite flavors are cajeta, nuez, sandia, fresa, y chocolate.

And of course, Aguas de Casilda.

Best Chocolate

Everyone I respect agrees that Chocolate Mayordomo has the best chocolate, even if it is the most commercial and widely marketed. I always took visitors to the one on Mina, between 20 de noviembre and Miguel Cabrera, south of Mercado 20 de noviembre, because it’s bright and spacious with samplers in easy reach. It smells really good, too.

I didn’t taste much prepared mole while I was there, but I am planning to take some home from Chocolates de Guelaguetza and Chocolates de Soledad, based on Patty’s and Soledad’s recommendations. It’s easy to end up with mole that’s too sweet so be sure to taste a sample before buying, it’s normal.

Desserts in Oaxacan restaurants, especially for the set-lunch, can be disappointing, but I had addictively delicious chocolate desserts at La Biznaga and Casa Oaxaca, and I am the kind of person who sneers at molten chocolate cake.

Best Wireless Café

All of these have good, strong signals with plenty of seats. Where I went depended on what I wanted to eat. I would probably give a slight edge to Café los Cuiles for having the broadest menu, as well as alcohol. I like having a beer while I write, don’t you?

1) Café Los Cuiles on Abasolo between Alcala and 5 de mayo, across from the handicrafts plaza. Nothing to write home about, but dependable, decent food and excellent Oaxacan hot chocolate.
2) Café Brujula on Garcia Vigil just north of Allende. The nicest, smiliest staff ever and my favorite drink in Oaxaca, pepe y limonada con agua mineral, cucumber-lime juice with carbonated water.
3) Nuevo Mundo on M. Bravo between Porfirio Diaz and Alcala. Uncomfortable chairs, sort of metal-café style, but very laid-back, nice staff, and excellent coffee.

Best Cooking Class

Sra Soledad Ramirez, who teaches at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca and will teach private classes upon request, is a Oaxacan grandmother to all who know her.

Seasons of My Heart, with Susana Trilling in Etla, is a completely different experience. Not quite like being in a Oaxacan abuela’s home, but also a lot of fun. Susana is not a Oaxacan grandmother, but knowledgeable nonetheless, and just tasting the hand-harvested salt from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and tasting the excellent El Rey Zapoteco mezcal is exhilarating.

My Very Subjective Best of Oaxaca Guide, Part I

September 24, 2007

Best All-Around Restaurant

La Biznaga is perfection. Casa Oaxaca has wonderful food, but La Biznaga is even better and in a classy, yet casual setting. It’s nueva cocina, traditional Mexican food with smart, interesting modern touches, but without ever losing respect for the traditional. Don’t be deterred by the “nice restaurant” prices—the portions are big, and no one will care, including you, if you just order an appetizer for dinner. You’ll be particularly happy if you order the Trilogia Mixteca, an unbelievable appetizer sampler that includes quesillo wrapped in a hoja santa leaf, a memelita with beans and queso fresco, a fried little cone stuffed with jamaica in refreshingly picante guacamole, and even a little blob of simple yet delicious beans. But if you are hungry for more, other dishes I’ve loved are the mushroom soup, the chicken stuffed with peppers and squash blossoms in a chile poblano sauce and the chicken stuffed with plaintains in a guava mole sauce. I almost never order chocolate dessert, but their chocolate mousse I would happily eat over and over.

And if La Biznaga is closed, I would go to Zandunga for istmeno food. A plate of garnachas and a beer is good eating! But if you want more, we also tried and liked the estofada, chicken stewed with fruits and vegetables, all sort of mixed together. Don’t be turned off by the fact that it looks like a pile of turd, it’s good.

Best Comida Corrida

I went several times to La Olla on Reforma between Abasolo and Constitucion for their comida corrida and was disappointed only once. It’s a pleasant, brightly lit restaurant, and everything comes prepared and plated with finesse, but it’s only 70 pesos for a 4-course meal, plus an agua of fruit. Nothing will blow your mind, but almost everything is tasty and comforting, starting with the excellent tortilla chips, bread and salsa. My favorites off the menu are the pasilla chile stuffed with cheese and beans and the tlayuda azteca, a big thick, almost tough but very Oaxacan tortilla which you can ask to have spread with half red mole and half black mole, and then the chicken, avocado, and tomatoes.

I tried various set lunch deals at other places, but nowhere else was particularly noteworthy, other than El Escapulario on Garcia Vigil north of Carranza. It’s more of a hole-in-the-wall, and not something to make space in your schedule for, but if you’re here for awhile and want to get a good meal for 35 pesos, El Escapulario is a good place to go.

Best Seafood

If you go to Puerto Escondido, definitely the old man selling shellfish out of his bucket on Playa Carrizalillo. But if you want to eat someplace a little more regulated, Marco Polo on El Llano was one of the few places I went more than once. A long-time American resident in Oaxaca told me that Sushi Itto in the zocalo isn’t bad, but when I said I would go try it, she hastened to add that I shouldn’t bother, it’s only acceptable for people who are truly stuck in Oaxaca.

Best Place for Bar Snacks

La Biche Pobre closes before dinner time, but if you need an excuse to drink in the afternoon—I don’t—their fried pork is an excellent excuse. There are other snacks that are tasty, but the fried pork is sublime.

I, sadly, did not get to try very many cantinas, places where they bring you free food with your booze. El Paseo’s food was so-so. I wish I had tried La Farola, advertised as the oldest cantina in Oaxaca, complete with swinging doors, but I never got around to it. La Farola is reputed to serve El Rey Zapoteco, my favorite brand of mezcal.

Best Place to Eat on a Cold and Rainy Night

I thought Patty’s pozole was the best, though it might have been the heady thrill of trying it for the first time, but if you’re not staying with her and her family, you can find warming pozole at La Gran Torta, open from 7 pm to 2 am, on Porfirio Diaz between Morelos and Independencia (closed on Tuesdays). They serve three kinds, Jalisco (white), Guerrero (green), and Michoacan (red). The Guerrero comes with chicharrones and avocado, as well as your choice of meat, but the Michoacan is more warming and spicy.

Zandunga, or, How Rebecca Saved Me from Loneliness and Boredom

September 19, 2007

In one week, I am leaving Oaxaca. It’s just as well, as I am running out of things to blog about. I’ve been lonely and bored, and the fact that I am getting tired of Mexican food has seriously affected my number one way of combating loneliness and boredom. Thankfully, my friend Rebecca is in town for a last-minute visit, and her enthusiastic and happy food-loving personality has reignited my enthusiasm for Mexican food. And of course, I am just thrilled to have her here. One of the things I have realized most during my four months here is how much I love my friends and how lucky I am to have them.

With Rebecca’s open mind and stomach, I’ve even been able to try things that I wouldn’t have been able to eat on my own, like the appetizer sampler plate for two at Zandunga, a restaurant on Garcia Vigil near the corner of Carranza that specializes in food from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca state. Even I could not have handled that bountiful platter of food alone.

Anthropologists are fascinated by the Isthmus because of its matriarchal society; folklorists are interested in the colorful huipiles or traditional clothes worn by these powerful women (often worn by Frida Kahlo) and its festive atmosphere and music. But for me, not surprisingly, the most powerful attraction is from its delicious and unique food. One day, I would love to go on a tour with Susana Trilling , eat more of the food I tried at Zandunga, and dance with the zandungas themselves, women “who radiate beauty, enthusiasm and pride.”

We had actually only come to Zandunga because La Biznaga was closed for the week for renovations, and I was apprehensive, worried that I was going to waste one of Rebecca’s meals in Oaxaca on something not-so-good. But soon after we sat down, we knew everything was going to be just fine. They immediately brought out a small plate of perfectly fried tortilla chips, a little bowl of dark, intense salsa, and another small plate of meltingly tender, crumbled ground beef. It doesn’t sound like much, but when we had eaten all the chips, I started just spooning the ground beef up with my salsa-laden spoon. (Rebecca is a very good friend—I have no shame around her.)

We quickly decided on the appetizer sampler, which included the following:

1) 3 garnachas, small fried tortillas with a mound of tender meat, fresh cheese, and a tomato sauce, served with pickled cabbage, our favorite. So good we carefully split the third one in half, neither of us able to pretend we didn’t want it;

2) 1 tamal de cambray, made of a masa that seemed sweeter, almost as sweet as American cornbread, and stuffed with a picadillo of shredded meat with cinnamon and raisins;

3) 2 molotes de platano, little torpedos of mashed plantains with a dark, fried crust;

4) 2 empanadas, darling little fried turnovers stuffed with meat and served with a garnish of cabbage, crema and salsa;

5) 1 generous bowl of ensalada de pica de gallo, which was the tomato-onion-cilantro mixture we’re used to seeing as pica de gallo, but with dried shrimp that made it deliciously fishy; and

6) 1 generous bowl of carne horneada, which were big hunks of beef that seemed to have been cooked very very slowly in a red, spicy rub.

It was accompanied with a stack of totopos, the tortillas made with corn unique to the Isthmus, flat and crunchy like a cracker.

The garnachas, the tamal de cambray, the carne horneada and the ensalada de pica de gallo were superb. Everything else was very good. Rebecca was happy, I was no longer bored nor lonely. It’s universally known, there’s little in life that can make you as content as sharing a plate of riquissimos antojitos, appetizers, antipasti, whatever you want to call it, with an old friend.

Itanoni, Flower of Corn

September 15, 2007

Yesterday, as I ate the most delicious tortillas of my life at Itanoni, a casual restaurant that seriously celebrates corn, I thought about Mexican Independence Day, which begins tonight at 11 pm with “El grito de independencia” or the shout for independence in the zocalo.

As the cheese and poblano peppers, with their slight yet sure spiciness, oozed out of my rolled-up taco, as I scooped up the last bit of chicharrones, or fried pork rinds, in red salsa with my bare fingers, I pondered all the ways in which Mexico is so different from the U.S.

When I bit into my tetela, the pre-Hispanic triangular corn turnover filled, in this case, with an intense black bean puree, enhanced by crema, queso, and the anise-scented hoja santa, I sighed and longed for some culinary delight that would link me and my country to a history spanning more than 250 years.

Mexicans domesticated corn 9000 years ago. They’ve probably been eating tortillas for almost as long. Although the Spanish brought smallpox, death, and destruction to the indigenous peoples, Mexicans are still eating the tortillas the conquistadors were given when they arrived 500 years ago.

I imagine most Mexicans take this for granted. Itanoni doesn’t. Its full name is “Itanoni, Flor del Maiz,” meaning “Flower of Corn.” It declares with pride that all its antojitos are made out of maiz criollo, meaning that the variety is indigenous and native to Mexico. (Criollo also means a Mexican of Spanish descent. Confusing and yet revealing, no?) Each plastic table, under its plastic tablecloth, displays a sweet story about the ant that revealed to the god Quetzalcoatl the secret of maiz, thus ending a famine.

Although Itanoni has a heightened sense of purpose, it tries to look like yet another little storefront selling memelas, tacos, and other small treats based on masa or corn dough, with its tin roof and casual, cheap resort furniture. You only begin to notice how self-consciously it seeks to be traditional when you see the menus, artfully designed with wholesome corrugated cardboard and brown paper, the aguas served in old-fashioned, thick glass bottles, and the sturdy construction of the wood-burning, outdoor stoves.

Whatever Itanoni is doing, it works. My tacos, my tetela, were the best anything made out of masa I have ever eaten anywhere. They reminded me that like a sandwich, a taco can be elevated by tasty fillings, but it can never be sublime without a great base. They had subtle layers, as flat as they were, almost like roti but without a hint of grease. They were unsalted and unsweet, tasting purely and cleanly of corn. The outer layers were toasty, while the inner layers remained soft and pliable. Is there anything that smells more innocent and more comforting than something toasted?

Octavio Paz says that Mexico believes in a continuity between its indigenous past and its post-Revolution, independent state, broken only by a couple hundred years of New Spain. Unlike the U.S., whose Founding Fathers plotted for independence without a thought for the Native Americans, the Mexican struggle for independence began with a Catholic priest calling to action angry indigenous groups, mestizos, and criollos, Mexican-born Spaniards who didn’t have the power and status accorded to Spanish-born Spaniards. However false and however strange, as Paz implies it is, to see modern Mexico as a restoration of what existed before New Spain, it’s what Itanoni celebrates, a sense of gastronomic and cultural heritage stretching back thousands of years. I envy it, if only because the food is so delicious. What would we similarly celebrate in the U.S.? Corn-on-the-cob? Roast turkey, when they’re bred to be so big-breasted the poor things end up with sad, sexless, artificially inseminated lives? (Apparently, Mexican Independence Day is now being celebrated in California. Really, illegal immigration is just Mexico’s revenge for having lost California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas to the U.S. only 150 years ago.)

Calvin Trillin is probably right, the best thing that ever happened to America food-wise was the Immigration Act of 1965. When I get home, I am going to comfort myself with a big platter of sushi.

Pomegranates grow on the sidewalks of Oaxaca

September 11, 2007

Look, you can even see the pomegranate forming from the flower.

Grapefruits grow on the sidewalk, too!

Ice cream with a view

September 10, 2007

You can find good nieve almost anywhere in Oaxaca, a random street corner in Colonia Reforma even. This melon had a lovely creaminess to it that didn’t keep it from being light and fresh with the flavor of real melons.

But possibly the most beautiful place to eat nieve is at the ice cream “jardin” at the base of the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad. The ornate façade of the cathedral faces west an open plaza ringed by walls.

Just beyond that plaza to the east are five or six nieve vendors set up with wrought-iron chairs and café tables, as well as bright striped metal parasols.

A few steps above and to the north is an even larger plaza with giant steps leading down from the street. This plaza is reputed to be a popular place for dance groups to rehearse, though the only thing I’ve ever seen is a pick-up soccer game but that itself was good entertainment. Sitting on the giant steps and facing south, you can see palm trees and then past them, the mountains to the south of the city. It’s not the most majestic view, definitely not the most breathtaking, but sitting there, looking out at the mountains, the church, and even the slightly dingy plastic tarps and parasols of the nieve sellers, it’s easy to feel a sense of peace.

If you have a little cup or cone of nieve, of course, you can feel glee as well as peace. I’ve only tried one, El Niagara, but have been told they’re all more or less the same. My little cup was filled with durazno, or peach, on the bottom and then cajeta, or goat’s milk dulce de leche, on top. They’re more like sorbet than the super-fatty, super-creamy ice cream I love most, and yet I never feel like I’m missing something. The durazno had little chunks of peach! Nothing ever tastes false here.

Alegria de Angelis

September 8, 2007

There is Korean food in Oaxaca, and it is very good. But the Korean woman who makes the food and her Italian husband are perhaps even more remarkable than the fact of the food’s existence.

Gya is married to Sandro, short for Alessandro, who is Italian. They have two children, a daughter named Aruna and a son named Govinda. Since these names are neither Korean nor Italian, and knowing what I do of their story, I imagine that both names are Sanskrit.

The family lives high on a hilltop in San Agustin Etla, about 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca City. Of the pueblos I have seen, Etla is the prettiest. The various towns that comprise Etla are all nestled in little dips among green hills, among skies that seem to draw close enough for you to touch. You can walk 50 feet in any direction and find a beautiful view, a buenavista.

Gya and Sandro have named their home, “Alegria de Angelis,” or “The Happiness of Angels” in Italian.  Here they grow organic vegetables in plots they themselves built, and run a small restaurant by appointment that serves Italian, Korean, and a few other Asian dishes, like momos, the Nepalese dumplings. They grow sweet basil, Napa cabbage, the vegetables essential to their food. They also sell their food at the organic market in Oaxaca at El Pochote and in a newly opened take-out store in San Felipe. Their children swim in the pond with the carp and the turtles.

Gya used to be a dancer, specializing in classical Indian dance. As she says, she was “loca” for dance, completely crazy, and one day, she found herself in France trying to decide whether to buy a ticket for Spain to study flamenco or for India to study classical Indian dance. She finally decided to flip a coin, and the coin told her to go to India. But as she sat on the plane, she realized that it was not chance, but fate that was taking her to India. “Flamenco is a dance of love, but Indian dance is spiritual, and I knew then that I needed to learn a spiritual dance.”

Sometime later, Sandro was traveling through Mexico, with plans to go on to India. A friend of his asked him to go to a particular store in India and buy a dance costume for her. When he got to the store, Gya opened the door. Sandro immediately knew that they would be married, and told her so. Gya told him he was crazy.

So Sandro went into the Himalayas to meditate on whether he had had a true revelation. In the mountains, he met an old man who took him into his home. The old man opened a large wardrobe and took out everything, and in the end, there were two ancient rings. The old man said he would give them to him if Sandro gave him everything he had in return, all the clothes he was wearing and all the money he had on him, save what he needed to get back. When Sandro went back to Gya with the two rings, they were married.

I’ve seen the photos of their wedding in India, Gya with her face beautiful, smooth and calm, color smeared on her forehead, and Sandro, looking handsome and inimitably Italian, even with the topknot of hair he wore and the smear of color on his forehead. (As much as I love the improbableness of their story, I must note how lovely they both were and are. If a troll were to tell me we would be married, no matter how enlightened he was or I was, I imagine it would be difficult to say yes. Whereas if someone who looked like Sandro showed up, with all the power of the Himalayas behind him…well.)

Sandro and Gya initially wanted to live in India, but found that they, as foreigners, would be restricted in their ability to own land or start a business. So they came to Mexico, traveling from city to city until they stopped at Oaxaca, where it felt right. They have now been in Oaxaca one year. They plan to stay for five years, and then see what happens.

The whole thing seems too ethereal to be true, like you’re dreaming by a pond in the mountains of Oaxaca, but they are very down-to-earth-people. Best of all, their firm attachment to the pleasures of this earth is manifest in the food that they serve and the joy with which they serve it.

I almost wanted to cry as I spooned my bibimbop into my mouth, as I bit down on the sharp, spicy, almost raw kimchi. It’s strange how much Mexico seems to reveal to me, almost everyday, how much I miss my mother. There was a slightly foreign note to the spiciness, not dissonant, but not quite familiar, and then Gya explained that she has to combine Mexican hot peppers with the bit of Korean hot pepper she’s able to buy in Mexico City.

Yet the food was authentic, in the best sense of the word, with love and respect for its traditions. Each component of the bibimbop had been grown, washed, and sautéed just until its flavor became the brightest it could be. The fried egg gleamed.

Gya had never cooked until they moved here. She had been a dancer, and in Italy, had eaten Sandro’s mother’s cooking. But, as she said, she remembered the taste, it was in her memories. And so they recreate the taste of the Korean and Italian food they know and love, here in Mexico.

El Escapulario

September 7, 2007

When dining out alone, there are several things you can do to feel a little less conspicuous. None of these techniques actually hide that you are eating alone, but done with sufficient brio, they can at least help you forget that you’re eating alone.

Lots of people like to take a book to read, but I often find it hard to keep a book open on the table while holding a fork and knife at the same time. If I’m going to have to let go of my utensils, I’d rather take my journal. I fancy that maybe I look like a serious restaurant reviewer, or a travel writer, or best of all, a writer, period. Ever since I read “A Moveable Feast,” the only Hemingway book I truly like, the romance of sitting at a café table with a glass of wine, a notebook, and a pen has sustained me for many a solo meal.

But eating lunch at El Escapulario last week, I realized the absolute best way to distract yourself from your solitude is to go to a foreign country and practice your foreign-language skills by eavesdropping on conversations next to you.

I’d passed El Escapulario maybe a hundred times since I got to Oaxaca. It’s on the second floor of a building on Garcia Vigil, just across from the Iglesia de Carmen Arriba, with a little cut-out of a window on the corner that makes it look almost magical. No matter that escapulario doesn’t mean “escape” but “scapulary,” or a religious garment. Lina had recommended it, too, but I never seemed to find myself in that part of town during comida time.

I wasn’t impressed walking up the stairs, which were dingy and dark. The first thing I saw at the top of the stairs was a kitchen and a storeroom, and I didn’t really want to look at either too closely. I am definitely of the “see no evil” school of restaurant hygiene. But then I saw the room with the window I had admired for so long. The room was painted white, with art on the walls, and the tablecloths were bright, colorful, and clean. The best table, the one right by the magical table was taken by a gringo and his Mexican friend, so I positioned myself the best I could to catch some of that window view.

The waitress took my order with such a sincere smile, the menu del dia with sopa de conde, barbacoa de cordero, an agua de guayaba, and a free beer! I opened up my journal and started scribbling my thoughts on the restaurant, the day, but I soon realized there was so much more to occupy me, right there in the restaurant.

The gringo at the window was truly a gringo of gringos. Even sitting down, he towered over the Mexican man eating with him, and being blond, buff, and dressed in a tank top and army green pants, he couldn’t be anything but American. His Spanish was exactly like mine, exceedingly earnest with a capacity for quite a wide range of verb tenses, though far from fluid. Because he was trying so hard, he spoke a little louder than he might normally, and I could hear him perfectly from my table. He said two words for every word his lunch-mate said, probably because, like me, he had been thinking so long about all what else he could say in Spanish, he had whole conversations planned out in his head. I found out that his name is Sky, “Like cielo,” he said, that this was his first vacation in years, and that he had worked really hard for the past couple of years. He asked his friend if he liked the weather, if he liked the beach, that he had heard some Mexicans don’t like, “Hmmm, como se dice ‘sand’?”, and so they don’t like the beach.

I understood every word the Mexican man said, but I can’t remember a thing because he said so little.

Knowing that my Spanish sounded as good and as bad as Sky’s made me depressed. Thankfully, I could drown my sorrows in the excellent food at El Escapulario. The sopa de conde was a pureed black bean soup, with chunks of queso fresco simmered in it and garnished with strips of fried tortillas. It was really really really good. I’ve now cooked black beans 4 or 5 times in Oaxaca, and it never ceases to amaze me how much flavor there can be in a handful of black beans. The waitress brought me a little cup of spicy avocado salsa, and though I don’t know if it was intended for the soup, it made it taste even better.

Barbacoa normally describes goat or other meat wrapped and roasted in banana leaves until the meat is deeply tender. This barbacoa was a lamb chop, and it really did fall off its little bone, almost dissolving into the sauce of guajillo chile and avocado leaf. I suspected that the sauce had been cooked with hoja de aguacate, and I felt so proud when the waitress confirmed my suspicions. The little pile of rice accompanying the barbacoa was perfect, each kernel surprisingly plump.

There was even a little postre, or dessert, a syrupy canned pear, its slices arranged in a sweet fan on the plate. I hate canned fruit, but it wasn’t too sweet and I enjoyed it.

By then, Sky and his friend were also done with lunch. I lingered to listen to the last scraps of conversation, sipping at my little baby bottle of beer. It wasn’t that their conversation was so fascinating, really. It’s just that when you’re learning a language, anything you can understand becomes instantly riveting, just because you’re so happy you understand. Even though I still have trouble with casual conversations, I can generally understand anything that is announced, and I’ll watch, rapt, commercials for shampoo and baby formula.

What a fantastic meal. I’d had a delicious three-course meal, with drinks, for 35 pesos plus tip, about $3.50, and been entertained while eating it.

Bragging about my soup

September 6, 2007

One of the things I love most about my friend Mimi is that she does not believe in hiding one’s light under a bushel. Hanging around her, it has started to rub off on me, and I can say, without hesitation, that I made a fantastic black bean soup the other night, and that I also made tacos of chicken and Mexican greens in a tomatillo-serrano sauce were both complex and soothingly delicious.

Of course, I have to admit that neither was very hard to make. Both recipes came from Rick Bayless’s “Mexican Kitchen,” and involved little more than patience and a good blender, though the availability of authentic ingredients like avocado leaves and Oaxacan chorizo was no small matter.

The black bean soup involved so little work, it’s almost embarrassing. I put Mimi to work picking out the ugly beans, while I roughly chopped a small white onion and peeled the casing off of three fat, round links of Oaxacan chorizo. I also toasted 4 avocado leaves very briefly on the burner, watching with fascination as dark spots spread almost instantly and completely across the leaf. Everything got simmered together for about two hours, until the beans were tender, and then salted to taste. I blended the soup in batches, and we ate it garnished with fried tortilla strips and crumbled queso fresco. There was no stock! And yet so much flavor came from the chorizo, the beans, and the unique anise-like scent of the avocado leaves. It was slightly spicy, in a deep, dark way, and utterly warming.

The chicken in tomatillo sauce had a completely different flavor, all brightness and verve. I began by roasting tomatillos and 2 serrano chiles on a metal comal, directly on the stove, until they had big, dark, soft spots. In the meantime, I sautéed half a white chopped onion until deep golden, adding some chopped garlic to cook for a minute more, and then blended the onions and garlic with the roasted tomatillos and chiles. This puree got fried in oil for 10 minutes, getting darker and richer. When it was done cooking, I stirred in 3 tablespoons of chopped cilantro.

In the meantime, I was simmering three chicken legs in plain water. I had been nervous about buying unrefrigerated chicken in the markets, and had wandered around for 2 hours looking for a rotisserie chicken, but in the end, I felt so lucky I had had a chance to cook those marigold-yellow chickens in the market. I didn’t put in an onion or a carrot, peppercorns or thyme, too lazy to try to make a real broth, and I even pulled off the skin in a fit of fat-consciousness, but nothing I could do could make the chicken taste bad. To think I just boiled the darn things! And yet they were meaty with flavor. Now that I think about it, chicken in the U.S. so rarely tastes like meat, it just tastes like filler or a flavor vehicle. When I think of all those people who only eat chicken, and even then only white meat, I have to blame them for creating a market for flavorless gum.

While the chicken finished poaching, I added thin strips of amaranth leaves, or quintoniles, in the tomatillo-serrano sauce, until they were only slightly bitter. I almost felt like they took on a bright tartness of their own. When I added the cooked, shredded chicken, the richness of the meat rounded out the tartness of the greens and sauce. All it needed was a little crumbled queso fresco.

We also had a salad of jicama, mango, and avocado, with some red leaf lettuce to bulk it up. Mimi and I ate most of it, as Alex didn’t even notice we had a salad until he was full of soup and chicken. (Thanks to them both for the glamorous close-ups; I was too frazzled to take photos.)