Sunday, October 25, 2009

Trip Report: Oaxaca - The Restaurants, pt. 2

...continuing on... We were getting much more comfortable knowing the city, and this is the point where we started to feel the pressure of our trip coming to an end. It was around this time that we walked to the observatory, walked the entire length of los arcos and explored a bit more around Juárez Park which is a very neat neighborhood worth more exploration.


Breakfast - La Antigua
I had settled into my routine of morning chocolate con agua with whatever breads were avalable, and Tyler with his coffee and eggs.

Lunch - El Escapulario
We were recommended this restaurant because of its affordable food and "great view of the mountains." Well, we can vouch for the affordable food, but the view is not so great, although you can see the mountains (if you sit at one table and look through the powerlines).

We had actually walked by many times and ignored it because of the fancy sign - too fancy for our tastes.

Menu del dia was kiwi juice, squash blossom sopa with bread.

Chicken with rice and a tomatillo sauce.

And another chicken dish with a spicier sauce.

As you can tell from my comments, the meal was fine but not memorable.

Dinner -We were supposed to go to Caldo de Piedra but they were closed for the evening meal, so we ended up at La Casa del Tío Güero. Caldo is known for its namesake - stone soup. They apparently bring you a bowl of soup and drop hot stones in to heat it. Maybe next time. Tío Güero was a desperation meal since we were both famished and kinda of lost. Nice decor and typical food.

Post Dinner - Arabia Café
But for after dinner drinks we stumbled upon this fun place!

Definitely not high dining, but unique versus many of the other restaurants that look very similar and have near identical menus. This is where the hipsters go and its near Juárez Park. Tyler had a Torres Diez brandy and I had michelada - a bloody mary like beer drink.

Those drinks were followed by a chocolate fondue.

Lunch - Itanoni
This was the most anticipated meal only because I was given some beans from Rancho Gordo's owner to give to Amado, the chef/owner of Itanoni. The café isn't the easiest to find because of its low-key store front, but its a wonderful story in the making. From Frommers:
This business began as a tortilla shop. The owner then decided to branch out into making other things besides tortillas. He is dedicated to preserving different forms of native corn and makes use of their varying characteristics in the cooking. The dishes are simple and safe, and include traditional antojitos such as tacos, quesadillas, memelitas, and a couple I had never heard of: tetelas, and his own "de ese." I like these last two a lot. You can get them with a variety of fillings, including bean, cheese, mushrooms, huitlacoche, and others.

Some nice juices to get us started - jamaica and kiwi. And here's the set-up.

They had three of these ovens on the grounds - I forget their official name, but they're similar to a small horno with a concave top for grilling. These were gas powered. The cooks ground the corn in front of you and worked their metates patting out the tortillas while you watch. Here is much of their menu to give you an idea of what they serve:

And the obligatory memolita con queso.

My favorite was the tetala (triangular filled tortilla) which oozed with cream. You can find a nice writeup by another blogger HERE.

One of the fun aspects was that you ordered sushi style. The server brought you the slip and you checked the various items. We ate our fair share, sampling much of what was on the menu.

Of all of the restaurants we visited, this was one of our favorites. The food wasn't unique or exemplary in flavor, but again, Amado is trying to do it right, and those tortillas really were something special.

Dinner - El Che
Here was our splurge meal. We had walked so much that day and wanted a nicer meal. Nicer by Oaxacan standards runs around $50 per person (v. $5-10). Coincidentally the local orchestra had set up for a street performance that night right outside the window so we had great live music while we dined. I had octopus Veracruz style...good but not outstanding.

And I asked which desserts were made in-house and was told two, one being apple strudel.

Our final day and we were finally leaving the city. We had the joy of taking a second class bus, which isn't as hard as finding the right but. And, the buses were coralled at the best market in town - totally overwhelming. We headed out to Teotlitlan del Valle where you're dropped by the bus on the side of the highway and start walking the two miles up into town. Eventually a cab will come get you for a couple of bucks to finish the trip. We ate at the relatively famous Tlamanalli, run by the Menodoza sisters who offer authentic Oaxacan and pre-Hispanico foods. When we asked a guy in TdV about the restaurant, telling him that we heard it was the best food in the entire valley, he laughed and said, "Well, some people lie."
Lunch - Tlamanalli Teotlitlan del Valle
Purple corn tortillas with guacamole

Squash blossom soup with a filled tortilla.

And on the last day of the trip...molé

Tyler had the pollo Azteca from the pre-Hispanico menu.

Overall, very pricey but a good meal. Best in the valley - no.

Dinner - Casa María Lombardo
No pictures, but this is a nice pizza house where the pizzas are fired in hornos. We avoided it because pizzas felt so out of place, but actually there is a local food that is a cousin to the pizza. If I remember right it was the tleyuda.

That's it for the food pics. Tomorrow I'll sort through my thoughts on Oaxaca as a foodie destination.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Trip Report: Oaxaca - The Restaurants

We arrive just around midnight on Monday and had room service bring some fresh fruit. Previous to the trip we used the Moon Guide, which we found deep in content, but completely worthless for its index. We had also culled restaurant recommendations from Chowhound, Trip Advisor, Mouthfuls and eGullet. Oddly, none of those sites had current suggestions, most were more than two years which in Oaxaca time might as well be a different century.

Oaxaca has a long tradition of protests and often they become violent. The violence often will grow so severe that tourists stay away and that means restaurants close. Add to that mix swine flu paranoia and you can imagine its not a good time to own a restaurant in Oaxaca. It didn't matter if we went to a hole in the wall or the sure-thing tourist restaurant, everything was quite and kinda sad (says the restaurant owner). We learned quickly to disregard the suggestions and make our own path, although many of the places we went were leads from locals. I also recommend visiting for address, hours and menus...if you speak Spanish.

We tried to dine like the locals where our mid-day meal was the large meal and the late night was lighter, but if you know me at all, that normally meant two full meals. So, here we go:

Breakfast - Camino Real
Our guidebook said that the hotel had one of the best breakfasts in town. It is a 5-star hotel, so we gave it a try. Tyler ordered alacart while I headed to the buffet. A slow buffet is never the time to walk the buffet line and sure enough there were a number of dead items. Being my first meal I sampled pretty much everything and it was all good enough to eat, so I would recommend this for someone with little time who wants to get a good spectrum of the offerings in town. It was also my first exposure to chocolate con aqua and Oaxacan tamales.

Lunch - Comala
Still a bit guarded, we weren't venturing too far yet and found this little café just around the corner from our hotel. The price looked right after our expensive breakfast so we stepped in.

Here's where I found my love for Indio beer. It actually comes from the Monterrey region, but it soon became my meal beverage. You'll see Tyler's mojito hiding behind. This was also our first sopa - I don't remember, but odds are good that it was squash blossom soup since almost every soup was squash blossom soup.

And when you're in a landlocked city in rural Mexico, its always a good idea to order the fish...

While I didn't care for the dry fish, I did enjoy my one brussel sprout. But, that was okay because I love a good rich why did they send me this!

Fresh fruit with sprinkles! ugly American was going to come out - "Barkeep! Send me another Indio - fast!"

Dinner - El Naranja
This was one of the highly recommended restaurants from some online source so we hit there on our first night. Oddly I can't find it at the restaurant review site I mentioned above. And it may not be worth mentioning since we were told that its up for sale - $85kUS for the restaurant business, not building. And we were the only guests when we arrived, so that meant...drinks with the bartender - possibly the nicest service person we met on the trip...a real gem!

He started us off with margaritas and hibiscus tea - also a recurring theme on the trip.

That evolved to "Do you want to try our most expensive mezcal?" Sure, why not, we're two dumb gringos with lots of money to burn (at least in comparison to pesos).

The nice thing was that we both now knew that we didn't care for mezcal - for me it is the smokiness that I could do without...but that doesn't mean we didn't enjoy some at almost every meal since its part of most meals. But I digress. This was also when I started simply enjoying the menu del día - You may remember my book review of the same name. I learned that its best to go with the chef's suggestions (and now as a chef, I concur). So that meant...squash blossom soup.

That was followed by albondigas in a green tomatillo sauce. Albondigas are typically poached and these were very nice.

Dessert was simply flan - "the special of the kitchen since you are a chef." It was a bit tough, but good (anything with syrup is good).

Breakfast - La Olla
Tyler found this one for us.

Just around the corner from the hotel, this café was definitely game for servicing tourists, but they had very good food. For me...chocolate con agua and today - memolitas - the Oaxacan breakfast of champions.

A couple of thoughts here. First, if any of the tortillas that we ate the entire week were from a factory, then that is the best factory tortilla ever. Second that queso Oaxaqueño is some great stuff! Simply beans smeared on a tortilla with cheese and sometimes meat, these are a nice start to the day - and often snack or street food.

Lunch - Maria Teresa
Found within the 20 de Noviembre Mercado, this little stall was the cleanest and friendliest so we had a seat. Now, market dining is not for everyone. Its one step up from street dining. And neither is highly recommended for squeemish diners - but both are safe if you keep your eyes open. Just make sure everything is cooked well and in front of you...and whatever you do, don't eat the pork! (set up for later joke).

I started off with an atole because I'm a tourist and I'm supposed to. Think liquid grits out of an old ladies' barrel. Ummm...yeah, done it, moving on...

But then the ladies go to a cookin' for the only tourist within earshot except for some Japanese dude who seemed to want the safety of our company but couldn't sit hit twitchy little butt down for more than 30 seconds.

I went for a working man's lunch - tortillas, beans, rice and chile rellenos con queso. Fresh OJ was used to douse the heat.

Dinner - Fuego y Sazón
Definitely in the top of our list, F&S was a real treat. We were recommended to come here by Sean, an American expat working at Yasín, an organic/natural food store. He said that his friend had the best steak of his life...and since Sean is a vegetarian and neither of us eats much red meat...

The room was too dark for good pics, but I had Indio, and then camarones y coco in a mango sauce. Really, really good. Basically coconut battered shrimp, fried and served with a killer sauce. Not what I would consider Oaxacan, but a fresh, sharp dish. I'm pretty sure that I had more than that, but geez, no pics, no memory (think tree falls in the woods).

Breakfast - La Olla
Yogurt and jugo de la olla - their special house juice.

Lunch - La Biznaga
Here was a gem that we stumbled upon accidentally.

Run by two scary looking leather dudes from what I guess to be Hungary or San Francisco, these guys run a nice show. This was the first place we went to that allowed smoking which was unfortunate since I was really enjoying the smoke free dining. It turned out that the majority of places are smoke free, and I rarely saw Oaxacans smoking anywhere.

Who cares what I had after my Indio...this bad mamba jamba will be re-created in my kitchen. You might remember my papas rellenos recipe - well this is a plantain relleno. Think mashed plantain filled with pork picadillo and guayaquil molé. Single best dish of the trip!

That called for a celebration so I had pear almond was fine but I started giving up on Oaxaca having anything sweet to offer me that wasn't alcoholic.

Dinner - El Asador
This is a little street stall across from the first-class bus terminal. While we perused the menu, I just reminded Tyler, "Whatever you do, don't get the pork." So they prepared my tacos Tyler pondered...

And of course, ordered the pork! The most neon read, not-nearly-cooked-enough-pork I've ever seen. With his fondness for talking himself into any illness, if this dish didn't make him think he had food poisoning, then nothing will. But he ate it, and he said he liked it.

That's it to keep this post manageable. Friday through Sunday will get posted tomorrow.

Trip Report: Oaxaca 2009

We're back, plumped up and already in our daily grind, so over the next couple of days I'll be making a few posts about Oaxaca. The posts will include a general lay of the land for potential visitors, many restaurant reviews, and then finally why I think the Oaxaca food scene may be exaggerated...ouch!...there, I said it. And with that little snippet aside, know that we loved Oaxaca, and highly recommend folks to visit.

First, we stayed at the top rated hotel in the city - Camino Real. No, we didn't really have $400 a night to spend on a nice mattress, but we had a plethora of reward points which allowed us to have some pretty nice accommodations.

"As you might already know, the five star Camino Real Oaxaca is unique in all of México. We are honored to be housed in this former convent of Santa Catalina with 91 rooms on two floors. Built in 1576, it is a grand colonial property, meticulously restored to retain its former grace. Spanish Baroque architecture and authentic colonial touches will take you back to earlier times in Oaxaca.

Walk down our long tiled corridors with their fading original frescoes and you can hear the faint sound of Gregorian chant in the air as you discover our several sun-splashed courtyards and flower filled patios and gardens. Explore our courtyards and walkways that are bursting with bougainvillea; archways with the warm morning sun glistening through them; gardens with fountains that quietly trickle - echoing the bird song you'll hear throughout the hotel. The setting is peaceful, relaxed and exudes a natural tranquillity and elegance."

Just a couple of short blocks away you'll find the former convent of Santo Domingo which still houses an amazing church, and holds the regional museum. The museum was really quite impressive even to me, a person who races through museums, and is housed in a remarkable building.

That's Tyler in his market purchased hat which became a pretty decent deal. Heading toward the center of town is the zócalo.

This truly is the center of town life. No matter what day or time, the zócalo was bustling with vendors, teenage makeout artists, and hipster gawkers...and tourists. We didn't spend much time there since its not our scene, but we passed through many, many times.

There's something unique going on in this region related to community organizing. I didn't see so much traditional/US/Obama organizing, but I did see a lot of guerrilla organizing. We saw this quite a bit in the traditional arts (weaving, potter, woodwork), but also in the graffiti. Tyler captured many more images, but the graffiti was quite focused and thoughtful.

The other thing that was fun for us was festival chasing. It became a joke that every time we heard loud music we would race out the door, sprinting up a street trying to find the latest festival. Really. They were almost every day and on Sunday there were a few in a day. Some were church based, others tradition based, and others...well, I'll get to that. Here is a traditional dance festival going on in the zócalo.

Mostly these were young kids from the surrounding villages and the event reminded me of our pow wows in the Southwest.

The church festivals seemed to focus on big headed, awkward dancing puppets with lots of people standing around them.

And sometimes what we thought to be church festivals, actually turned out to be communist protests for higher wages with many, many people...including two very tall white dudes taking lots of pictures (not to be confused with any CIA members on the sidelines).

And every now and then we would get a really special treat like when we were up in Teotitlan del Valle. We were inside enjoying a nice meal and all of a sudden I commented that the stereo sounded so loud that it could have been right outside...Quick! Grab your camera and race out the door! Festival!

Actually, it was a traditional wedding. Just like in small towns everywhere, in Teotitlan del Valle the newlyweds process through the town announcing their pride and joy. The bride and groom are preceded by a raucous band, then followed by family, then guests, and finally a truck filled with furniture - the gifts from everyone to help them start their new home. Much nicer than in Silver City where they just honk their horns.

We didn't get to as many outlying historic sites as we might have wanted, but we did get to the big one - Monte Albán. This is one of the first new world cities founding about 500 years bc and continued until around 750 ad. It was the capital of the Zapotec (cloud people). A very cool site and not terribly ruined by modern pillaging and development.

But for us the visit became an opportunity to see the sleestaks!

You know, the slowly moving monsters in Land of the Lost! Okay, no disrespect intended, but there are a handful of sanctioned vendors who are allowed to sell traditional crafts on the grounds, and they are very, very old and slow. And after a while you get tired of saying "no, gracias," and so you just start to veer away from them before they can catch up to you.

But, of course, for me this visit was about the food! The rest of my posts will focus on the restaurants, but I wanted to share some finds in the various markets and stores.

Bambi is the oldest and biggest pastry shop. I went because its in my blood, but after a few bites of typical dry Mexican breads, I had enough. However, I walked out with 10 pastries for less than $3US.

The mercados were much more fun and interesting. I'll try to recall which was which, but I seem to remember most enjoying the market to the southeast of downtown - much quieter with all the same stuff, and more friendly. The one on the southwest of town by the 2nd class bus terminal was also a lot of fun but very overwhelming.

I was on the lookout for Oaxaceño foods such as there famous cheese. I loved this cheese that comes either in string form wrapped into a ball, or fresco - you'll see lots of it in our food pictures at the restaurants. Tyler just found it salty.

I also was looking for some new peppers to bring home and try out. There was a pretty good selection.

And lots of amaranth, which I have never used but I know a lot of celiacs enjoy it. I bought a bar covered with chocolate and nuts - that'll make anything taste good.

But those oh man! Here's Tyler walking through one of the many, many meat aisles.

And yes, the meat was open air and fly laden. But just 30 minutes later it was time for mid-day meal - the big meal of the day, and woosh! Flames roared up in the meat aisles!

The smoke was overpowering and Tyler's 3rd world country roots kicked in and he was salivating.

I'll stop there and get to work. Later I'll post the first round of restaurant reviews.