Oaxacan cuisine in general was new to me—I can’t think of a single restaurant in NYC that serves it—but Istmeño? I knew absolutely nothing about the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the skinniest part of Mexico with the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico on its sides.
And I only got an abbreviated taste during lunch at Zandunga, one of the many seemingly rustic but concertedly stylish open-door restaurants that line García Vigil.
Lightly spiced ground beef, salsa and greaseless thick-cut chips were a complimentary starter. You really don’t see much ground beef, picadillo, in Oaxcan. Oddly, ground beef came up in one of my Spanish lessons (which were basically two-hour daily conversations about food) and my teacher kind of admonished it as Tex-Mex, though she probably meant in tacos and enchiladas. She had funny food quirks, hating impossible-to-avoid-in-Mexico pork and lard, as well as caldos (one you’ll see below) because the watery soups seem like hospital food.
The botanas plate on the menu of nearly every restaurant I tried in Oaxaca became my enemy. Always billed as an appetizer selection for two or more, poor solo me could never indulge my urge for variety. Instead, I had to focus on one thing at a time, in this case beef empanadas, softer and more of a complete meal than the more pervasive Colombian ones in NYC. Dammit, and now I know what the botanas at Zandunga look like. It’s a good thing I didn’t see this photo before eating or I would’ve been sadder.
I don’t equate soup with invalids but outside the (huge, wide-ranging) Asian canon, I don’t eat the course very often. Too liquidy, not satisfying. At Zandunga a different caldo is featured each day. My day, a Monday, offered a version containing long pork ribs and toasted granules of hominy that sunk to the bottom of the bowl. The soup looks nearly content-less in this photo because all the heavy stuff is sitting just below the surface like a more appetizing loch ness monster. The broth was very simple yet it was deceptively hearty. I was compelled to eat at least 90% of it because I was the only diner in the room and felt like eyes were on me. I probably didn’t need those empanadas.
I left full and far from dissatisfied but not completely wowed with my choices. I just became Zandunga’s Facebook friend, though, so no hard feelings.
Zandunga * Calle García Vigil at Calle Jesus Carranza, Oaxaca, Mexico