Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Americas’ Category

Joe Beef

Attempts at artisanalizing the McRib wind me up a little. Yet, when it comes to cross-cultural fast food interpretations using foie gras, I’m completely open. There was no way I wasn’t ordering the Foie Gras Double Down, four very important words scrawled in chalk at the bottom of the appetizer list on Joe Beef’s wall-sized blackboard menu. Our server started explaining what a Double Down was (KFC had recently stopped selling the controversial sandwich in Canada) and I appreciated her assumption that I wouldn’t be familiar with the monstrous creation.

Joe beef foie gras double down

Two slices of foie gras are breaded in a light flaky crust, deep-fried, of course, and surround meaty slabs of bacon candied in maple syrup. I did not detect any cheese, though I’m fairly certain that was mentioned in the description. As if you would need an additional layer—this is the kind of dish the food police should fret over, not the chaste 540-calorie fried chicken as buns served at KFC, and exemplifies the Joe Beef approach to food in a tidy foil-wrapped bundle. Shared, the fork-and-knife snack is still a hefty dose of creamy fat and salty-sweet chew. Maybe that pork belly McRib isn’t so bad after all.

Joe beef venison

My venison and spaetzle was no less hearty, but a touch more traditional. Seeing my first snowfall of the season and excited by finally being able to crack out my parka, I was going wintery and filling all the way.

Joe beef venison carpaccio

We first experienced venison as an amuse. Not the first meat I would think of to carpaccio, but the pink flesh was very tender and contrasted well with the sharper raw shallots and dollop of mustardy mascarpone—oh, and shaved truffles.

Not pictured is the rack of pork ribs. Full of game meat, I didn’t sample them, but James had to because he’s been dabbling with a baby-sized Bradley (a Canadian brand, of course) smoker. We were shown the built-from-scratch smoker in the back yard by co-chef/owner David McMillan. Impressive for sure, as was the bowl of vanilla soft serve topped with a burgundy wine reduction and shaved black truffles. Decadent, and once again merging disparate styles.

From start-to-finish, we got the full Montreal welcome. It was more than enough to drop my old Au Pied de Cochon grudge because I’m mature that way now.

Joe Beef * 2491 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, Montreal, Canada

Alpenhaus

After so much gravy and fries, I just wanted something light and fresh like…fondue. Ok, what I really wanted was something old fashioned and festive. Alpenhaus more than met my needs.

Alpenhaus seating

Fondue is a confusing dish, though. I treat it as an entrée (American entrée, not entrée meaning appetizer like in the rest of the world including Canada). But it’s always on a menu with other big dishes, whether veal cordon bleu at a traditional restaurant or heritage pork cassoulet at a more modern one. Are you supposed to treat it as a starter? At Pain Béni in Quebec City (which I’m not blogging because I’m trying to be more restrained) a group ordered cheese fondue as dessert, which isn’t a bad idea.
Alpenhaus fondue

I’ve never encountered a fondue for two as massive as the three-inches of melted Emmental and Gruyere that was presented to us in this weathered, red crock. We were warned against ordering a rosti and the large cheese-and-sausage heavy salad, and I can see why.

Nonetheless, the male half of a couple sitting nearby yelled out to the waiter, “Yes, now I do want the wienerschnitzel!” implying that his original order had been tamed, as well. He got his veal cutlet.

Alpenhaus salad
And we ordered the Alpenhaus salad anyway.

Alphenhaus * 1279 Rue St-Marc, Montreal, Canada

Chez Ashton & Restaurant Madrid

St hubert sauce packets While I do profess to be an admirer of chain restaurants, I don’t eat a lot of fast food in practice. But when I leave the US (yes, Canada counts) it’s a free for all. Canada is particularly interesting because it looks just like the US on the surface except our franchises are nearly nonexistent there. Roots not the Gap, The Bay not Macy’s, Tim Hortons not Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s all homegrown.

On our last excursion up north we discovered St-Hubert, featuring rotisserie chicken and a fondness for gravy and frozen peas (which seems more English than French). James became so enamored by the brand that on this visit we stocked up on packaged sauces. DIY hot chicken sandwiches in our future.

Chez ashton

This time we explored Chez Ashton and all its poutiney glory. How many ways can you serve fries? Quite a few, it turns out.

Ashton poutine

Combo meals come with fries or poutine as a side. The round aluminum tin on the left accompanied a chicken sandwich (poultry on bread is as ubiquitous as poutine in this fast food canon). The gravy-softened fries and soft irregular hunks of tangy cheese would be ideal for a geriatric jaw (or my toothless cat, Caesar, who gums Doritos with fervor) but there’s nothing gruel-like about the makeshift casserole that hits the right salty and starchy notes. Snow food or drunk food, it’s hearty. What’s not, are the sodas that come with these combinations. Beverages are served in sane, un-American-sized paper cups that I don’t think we’ve had since the ‘70s.

Gus' red hots

A Dulton Saucisses adds fat wiener slices and cinnamon-spiced ground beef, the same “Michigan sauce” that you’ll find just south of the border smothering hot dogs in Plattsburgh, New York. This is an onion-topped specimen from Gus’ Red Hots. The Galvaude Fromage, which I did not try, is poutine with chicken chunks and little green peas. Featured on the tray liner is a nameless snack that’s simply cheese curds and gravy. I guess it’s no stranger than eating a bowl of cottage cheese with ketchup.

Madrid restaurant

Madrid superfoot

Lunch turned out to also involve fries and gravy. There was no way we weren’t stopping at Restaurant Madrid, a hotel and diner half-way between Quebec City and Montreal that’s inexplicably surrounded by dinosaur figurines, monster trucks and designed in “the Spanish style that was sweeping Quebec” in the ‘70s.

Madrid interior

I don’t recall a Spanish revival during my childhood. If there were one, I suspect it didn’t involve a mechanical fortune teller or life-size country bumpkin dolls.

Madrid hot chicken sandwich

Not really hungry after a Dulton for breakfast, I just ordered the bbq chicken leg. It came on half a hamburger bun, surrounded by fries with a small dish of what I’d call gravy. Canadians make a distinction between the brown liquid served on poutine and the brown liquid served with rotisserie chicken and atop hot chicken sandwiches like in the photo above. Those peas, they’re everywhere.

Chez Ashton * 54, Côte du Palais, Quebec City, Canada
Restaurant Madrid * Autoroute 20, Exit 202, St-Léonard d’Aston, Canada

Schwartz’s

Schwartz's exterior Schwartz’s is touristy—even at 0 degrees Celsius there are lines out the door, tour busses parked out front—but classic. I still went back for a repeat visit.

I haven’t yet mustered up the patience for Mile End, though, so I can’t compare a Brooklyn interpretation of Montreal smoked meat to the real thing. I would say that the Canadian pastrami is seasoned a bit more mildly, is less salty and more tender (even though I’ve read the contrary) than their NYC counterparts. To be honest, I prefer it if only because the sandwiches are completely rational in size and price. I’ve never understood the half-foot tower of rosy meat spilling out of two floppy slices of rye. Why not just order a pile of meat?

Schwartz's viande fumee

Which is what we did. This was the $13.95 large plate, which came with $1.50 sharing surcharge. “Enough for three sandwiches” turned out to be plenty for five in reality. They’ll give you more bread if you blow through your ration.

Schwartz's counter

I was stymied by something called “nash” on the menu (also “pogos” at a pit stop between Quebec City and Montreal). It turns out to be pepperoni sticks, a snack I didn’t realize was so popular in Canada until we were faced with a big bag of Piller’s pepperonettes at a grocery store and had to buy them.

Previously on Schwartz's

Schwartz’s * 3895 Saint-Laurent Blvd., Montreal, Canada

La Farola

Drinking culture, my favorite kind of culture next to eating, stymied me in Oaxaca. I never did figure out if there was a place where a single female could have a drink without inviting unwelcome attention. I’m not even prime pestering material and still got invited to drink cervezas by a random man who started chatting me up while walking down the street in broad daylight.

I did have a few shots of mezcal at a random top-floor bar in the same building as Los Danzantes but the crowd was very young. The friendly guy working at Mezcalería Los Amantes gave me a flyer for a Nortec Panoptica Orchestra show later that night at Café Central (owned by artist Guillermo Olguín, also the proprietor of the above tasting room who is opening a mezcal bar on the Lower East Side in the near future) but after heading back to my hotel I became a fuddy-duddy and didn’t feel like going back out after midnight.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the end of my week that I started interacting people. I vowed to meet up with three women from my cooking class (one whom I was drawn to because of her white hair. I mean, she was in her fifties but even so you just don’t see anyone attractive with the nerve to go natural in NYC, and yes, she turned out to be a New Yorker. Her sister, traveling with her, also had non-dyed gray hair) with Susana Trilling, originally that evening. But after ten hours (we were picked up at 9am and didn’t get back to Oaxaca until after 7pm) of market shopping, cooking, snacks, lunch, mezcal, beer and a multi-course dinner, everyone was sated into a stupor.

The next night was my last, Thanksgiving, and it was my last chance for cantina fun at La Farola, a touristy but charming bar from 1916. I was sipping not slamming but hours flew and at some point I broke a glass, the universal signal that it’s time to stop drinking. And nice, non-rot gut mezcal or not, I still felt all the painful effects the next morning while getting ready for my flight back to NYC.

La farola polaroid

We gave small children a few pesos when asked but for the most part fended off the deluge of rose vendors and candy sellers. After a week my no gracias guilt had fully abated. It wasn’t until the guy with a Polaroid camera came by that we caved. Photos are always entertaining and instamatics are a dying breed in this digital world. We did color, black and white, numerous shots. They came in little colorful cardboard frames.

Certainly the mezcal contributed but it was some of the most fun I had all vacation. (This was enhanced by calls of “Krista! Krista!” when I went upstairs to use the bathroom. I genuinely thought I was hallucinating but it turned out to be this couple from our class that I had pegged as wholesome and naïve [others interpreted this as gay and in denial]. They were accompanied by a Mexican con artist who’d been following them around all day scamming free drinks. It turns out that the day before this very same guy had been trying to glom onto the woman from L.A. that was sitting with us downstairs. She had no problem getting rid of him, however.)

Fun with strangers? Anti-social me? What did I have in common with these women? It eventually became obvious: we were all unapologetically unmarried and childless. It was heartening to be around like-minded females in their 40s and 50s, a spiritual nightcap and satisfying end to my vacation.

La farola botanas

Oh my god, botanas at last! Tasajo, cecina, chicharon, cheese, chorizo, pickled carrots and jalapeños (with tortillas and salsa, of course). Technically my final meal in Oaxaca (I did pick up a sweet roll and mini banana from my hotel’s breakfast buffet the next morning).

La Farola * 3 20 de Noviembre, Oaxaca, Mexico

Las Quince Letras

I almost forgot about my first meal in Oaxaca. It was short and sweet and I had no idea what I was doing or where anything was yet. The city is incredibly easy to navigate, though. I don’t think I’ve ever traveled anywhere before that is so compact and tidy, by which I mean grid-like right angles and well labeled street names not clean and sterile—it seemed like every street was under construction, riddled with ditches and trenches, dust in the air. Combined with the cobblestones, I don’t see how women could possibly wear heels without twisting their ankles or getting caked in dirt.

Las quince letras patio

Las Quince Letras was listed on a handout at my first hotel and seemed relatively nearby. I was enticed by the description of an open-air back patio, though I soon discovered that amenity was hardly uncommon in Oaxaca where inner courtyards abound.

Las quince letras condiments

The salsa and butter twosome that always comes with a bread basket. Do you eat the two together, choose one or alternate? I opted for the more is more approach and dabbed the spicy sauce on top of a thin layer of butter, which was creamier and more tongue-coating than any American or European types I’ve had. It was practically like cream cheese in texture..

I first asked about tasjao, which was new to me. It’s a salted dried beef like a plumper jerky that is very popular in Oaxaca. The thing is, we have that here too but we call it cecina. Even more topsy-turvy is that the word cecina is also used in Oaxaca but to describe pork.

Las quince letras enchiladas oaxaquenas

I went a different direction and agreed to the enchiladas Oaxaquenas, suggested when I asked for something not too huge (I hate wasting food and leftovers seem impractical on vacation). Chicken and black mole. I’m not sure if I was starving or what (I did eat a much inferior enchilada on the plane) but the flavors were amped up. I feared cottony white meat chicken, but this meat had substance, the sweetish sauce was rich without being heavy and the crumbles of salty cheese and raw rings of onion kept things from becoming too one note. There would be no way I could let these enchiladas fall victim to the (ridiculous to me) three-bite rule. I’m still trying to figure out who possibly has the willpower to eat three bites, supposedly the amount that registers in the mind as exciting, then stops. Dietary quirks have no place in Oaxaca.

Las Quince Letras * 300 Abasolo, Oaxaca, Mexico

Marco Polo

I didn’t anticipate eating fish on Thanksgiving. I didn’t have any plans at all for El Dia de Acción de Gracias, quite possibly the longest phrase ever to approximate one compound English word. But that Thursday afternoon I had one last open spot for a full meal and took the opportunity to try Marco Polo, a reasonably priced seafood restaurant that is a favorite with locals with outdoor seating and clay oven. Everyone says the location along El Llano park is better than the one in the center of town so that’s where I went.

Marco polo oven

The rack on the left contains dishes waiting for their turn in the wood-burning oven.

Marco polo bread basket

Tostadas, crackers and bread, all bases covered. Marco Polo seemed particularly concerned with hygiene. The bread basket and ceramic dish of chipotle mayonnaise both came wrapped in plastic and the servers all wore surgical face masks.

Marco polo condiments

Condiments aplenty. I wasn’t sure how the mayonnaise fit in but observed others slathering it on the dried corn tortillas.

Marco polo shrimp cocktail

I chose the small shrimp cocktail to start with. There were endless combinations of seafood in sauces as well as ceviches. This was one of the few that didn’t contain ketchup. I just wanted to taste the shrimp enhanced by lime, tomatoes and jalapeños.

Marco polo huachinango al horno

The huachinango al horno (red snapper) was so simple and wonderful. The baked fish is coated with chipotle mayonnaise (apparently their trademark), which keeps the flesh moist and is liberally sprinkled with roughly chopped garlic (they ask if you want garlic or not—I think you do).

If not being able to share a plate of botanas was the biggest downside to being a solo diner, never having room for dessert was a close second. Not once did I have the appetite for a postre, and here it seemed like a genuine shame. I’d heard and read from numerous sources (including two waiters who were disappointed when I declined) about the plantains and rompope that also get the wood-burning oven treatment. Dear lord, I searched Flickr using keywords: bananas marco polo, and this is what I found.

Marco polo exterior

Marco Polo * Pino Suárez 806, Oaxaca, Mexico

Los Danzantes

1/2 Los Danzantes was by far the prettiest, chicest restaurant I dined at in Oaxaca. Dramatic at night, the open-air courtyard strewn with foliage, fountains and surrounded by towering bottom-lit stone walls, actually made me feel more alone than relaxed. The space and elegant take on local cuisine (they’re adherents the Slow Food movement) scream date restaurant. While my meal was impressive, I did start having second thoughts about visiting higher end Casa Oaxaca later in the week. I would’ve felt even more solo, I think.

Los danzantes dining room

I was surrounded by couples, exclusively tourists or expats it seemed. I couldn’t ignore a nearby large table that appeared to be occupied by a Spanish-speaking man with grown children and a ruddy, boomer American woman, who I could’ve determined was American without hearing her speak, those drawstring cuffed cropped cargo pants did all the talking. She was loud, animated, self-possessed, not a New Yorker, earthy, well-off, a Whole Foods shopper. I really only took notice about half-way through my quiet meal when her college-aged son showed up and she went hysterical and emotional and if I heard correctly (I had no choice; despite the tables’ generous spacing, sound carried) she hadn’t seen him since August. It was only November. Clearly, I have no understanding of close-knit families as I can go years without seeing my mom in person.

Demomstrative was all I could think. Posing and photo snapping began, flashes. When I caught the son glancing at his watch as if he had someplace more pressing to be, I felt slightly relieved.

Maybe Los Danzantes is made for family reunions. Via Twitter I noticed that Top Chef Master, himself, Rick Bayless was there this week for an annual Christmas with family. He exudes Midwestern wholesomeness and he’s chatty as heck on Twitter; I wouldn’t be surprised if Rick was the demomstrative member of his family.

Los danzantes bread basket

I started with a cocktail that I can’t remember clearly now, though I’m fairly certain it was a margarita with a smoky element. I do love how the bread baskets are a mish mash of both said bread and tortillas, salsas and butter as accompaniments.

Los danzantes flor de calabaza rellena de queso y hoja de aguacate con sopa ligera de chayote y chapulinesFlor de Calabaza Rellena de Queso y Hoja de Aguacate con Sopa Ligera de Chayote y Chapulines/Cheese-Stuffed Squash Blossom and Avocado Leaf with Light Soup of Chayote and Grasshoppers 

Clearly they meant light in flavor not texture. I was only given a fork with this (possibly an oversight—my service was a little wonky, as scrawled in my notebook, “Slow Food but oddly harried atmosphere.” The black-clad waiters with ponytails, facial hair and Converse moved faster than anyone I’d seen in leisurely Oaxaca. I had to slow down my walking pace 70% to not mow down pedestrians on narrow sidewalks) but the soup was thick enough to eat in that manner. The focus was definitely on the squash blossoms filled with mild cheese. Small, dried bugs do not scare me (the thought of sago worms, on the other hand, makes my stomach seize up) so I felt compelled to order the starter involving chaupulines. I did end up nibbling them straight up, the more traditional way, later in the week. It’s hard to describe the flavor because it’s the chewiness that is more prominent. They really don’t have a distinctive taste beyond a slight tangy saltiness.

Los danzantes escalopas de pato al chichilo con verduras, papas y pepitasEscalopas de Pato al Chichilo con Verduras, Papas y Pepitas/Duck Breast in Mole Chichilo with Vegetables, Potatoes and Pumpkin Seeds

Chichilo is one of the so-called seven moles of Oaxaca and incorporates local chiles like chilhuacle negro and is less rich and sweet than the popular mole negro. This is definitely nuevo and I got caught up in the duck, which I’m often drawn to. But the protein, vegetable, potato convention is a bit continental for my taste. Hotel-like. The carrots and zucchini weren’t terribly exciting but the duck was perfectly medium-rare.

Los danzantes mezcal

Los Danzantes showcases a large number of artisanal mezcals and have their own distillery. I sampled the joven (and later bought a bottle to take home at their retail shop, a block from my hotel) because that was what was suggested to me but they also have a golden reposado and darker anejo. I am still kicking myself for not picking up any sal de gusano, the traditional ground worm, chile-laced accompaniment for mezcal. It’s savory, salty, spicy, a little umami, and impossible to find in NYC. I can’t even find it for sale online.

Los danzantes jaguar bathroom stall

The she-jaguar in the women’s bathroom stall is a bit jarring. Maybe more so after a few cocktails.

Los Danzantes * Macedonio Alcalá 403-4, Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxacan Market Fare: Quesadillas, Chile Rellenos, Pancita & Paletas

It might seem like I only ate fancy restaurant fare  in Oaxaca (wanting to take advantage of a favorable exchange rate and a desire for regular everyday food has always been a balancing act when traveling in Latin America and Asia) but that’s not really the case.

On my first full day I ventured a bit east of the city center to the smaller, for-locals Mercado de la Merced. I might have held off if I had known that my cooking class at Casa de los Sabores later in the week was going to provide a detailed tour of this market. But that was for learning and buying ingredients, not for eating.

Mercado merced comedor celia

Just inside of the indoor section is a small courtyard with female-run fondas occupying three sides of the square, each bearing the name of the proprietor. The fourth wall contains a shrine. I was initially struck by how hawker center-like this set up was, except hawker centers are much easier to navigate. At least in Singapore there is always a menu posted with prices and each stall is known for a particular specialty. English is no problem whether the owner is Chinese, Malay or Indian.

I randomly picked Comedor Lupita. But as mentioned above, you kind of have to know what you want though you can get an idea by seeing what’s on display and what others at counter stools or communal wooden tables are eating. A long list of items was rattled off when I asked what they had. I only understood maybe half of what I was being told and after asking for something not too big (I was hoping to try more food at another stand but then I worried if you offend the first place you eat at by going to another) a quesadilla was suggested. Perfect, you can’t go wrong with cheese and tortillas. This is a very basic example filled with Oaxacan cheese, which is a more artisanal American string cheese.

Comedor lupita quesadilla

Simple, crackly-edged and flavorful, what really makes these quesadillas so special are the freshly made and grilled tortillas. A very rare breed in NYC. Make sure to get the deep crimson pureed salsa—I was about to ask when they remembered to bring it over. A glass of jamaica (I’m still not clear why hibiscus is jamaica in Spanish—more confusing is that it’s called sorrel in Jamaica) is always refreshing when it’s hot. And it was much hotter than I had expected in late November.

After walking around a bit and surveying all the produce for sale (not all local, mind you, there were apples from Washington state) and regretting that I didn’t really have the time or facilities for cooking, I decided to have another snack. This time I settled on Fonda Meche (or Teresita, I have both written in my notes) and asked about a golden puffy fried blob sitting in the glass case (I didn’t ask about the giant glass jars of eggs sitting on everyone’s counters. Were they hardboiled for eating out of hand? They didn’t look pickled like you’ll find in non-NYC convenience stores) Oh, it was a chile relleno. It didn’t resemble the ones we have here, and to be frank, I’m not crazy about them even though I haven’t eaten one in over a decade. But once I show interest in something, I feel compelled to go with it.

Mercado merced chile relleno

You don’t get the stale example; they cook one on the spot for you. I would’ve been fine with just the chile but after being suggested sides I caved and got black beans too. A big inky pool of legumes. The chile relleno was a bit oily but not unappetizingly so. In fact, it was kind of amazing in its lacy-crisp lightness and was filled with rich shredded beef. The difference might be that in the US we typically use poblanos while in Oaxaca they use dried pasilla oaxaquena chiles, which are smoky like chipotles. As with most meals in Oaxaca, you are also offered corn tortillas or bolillos and butter. I always went for the tortillas but based on casual observation the bread basket was more popular with other diners.

More of my Mercado de la Merced photos, if you are so inclined.

On my last full day, Thanksgiving, I wandered around town doing all the touristy things I hadn’t done yet like visiting museums and hitting all the popular markets. I eventually got sucked into the rows of casual eateries inside the Benito Juárez market. Tacos? Tortas? Smoky grilled meat? It was a bit overwhelming. And then I noticed a pancita stand with booths and one open seat at the counter. I love menudo, or pancita as they were calling it. Menudo isn’t much of a thing in NYC, and it’s not not a big deal in Oaxaca either, which is kind of why I wanted to try it.

I thought my language skills had improved after a week, but I was seriously getting stumped by much of what I was being told and asked. I managed to get a small bowl with cilantro and onion (despite being warned against eating both fresh ingredients in markets—I didn’t want to get into it above because I don’t like playing into stereotypical hand-wringing over eating foreign street food, but serious gastrointestinal distress set in after day one at the Mercado de la Merced. By this point, though, I figured all damage had been done why not go wild with raw vegetables). There was an issue over my choice of club soda when asked if I wanted anything to drink because they’d have to go elsewhere to get it and didn’t seem to mind but that seemed crazy to me and I got to use my favorite phrase I learned and that was fitting in so many Oaxacan situations, “no vale la pena.” It’s not worth it. I had a bottle of water from the hotel in my bag.

Mercado de benito juarez pancita

The soup was spicy with a substantial amount of thick chewy pieces of tripe (when they noticed I’d eaten most of the offal out of my bowl, I was offered more—I declined). But the most interesting part was that instead of hominy they used garbanzo beans. A Oaxacan touch.

Popeye's cajeta paleta

Afterward, I picked up a cajeta popsicle at a storefront Popeye (they also have roving street carts), supposedly one of the better paleta purveyors in town once you get over the association of Popeye with fried chicken. They had quite a number of flavors available, but in typical Oaxacan fashion none were listed anywhere. You have to ask or know what you want. Fruit is probably more popular but I liked the goat’s milk caramel.

Mercado de la Merced * Corner of Insurgentes and Murguía, Oaxaca, Mexico

Mercado Benito Juárez * Corner of Flores Magon and Las Casas, Oaxaca, Mexico

Paletas Popeye * Calzada Porfirio Diaz 239, Oaxaca, Mexico

Zandunga

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.

Zandunga exterior

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.

Zanduga amuses

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.

Zandunga empanadas

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.

Zanduga pork rib corn soup

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