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Posts from the ‘Oaxaca’ Category

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


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

Casa Mario Lombardo

1/2 Oaxaca was freeing. I could indulge in Hawaiian pizza, the love that dare not speak its name in New York City, with no shame. Ham and pineapple is revered, ok, enjoyed by Mexicans in a way that is not allowed in the Northeast but likely still holds traction in many parts of the United States (growing up a half pepperoni/half Hawaiian was a standard family-pleasing order).

Frozen hawaiana pizza

My theory is only bolstered by evidence found in the freezer case at Soriana.

Domino's hawaiian pizza in oaxaca

Domino’s are not foreign to Oaxacans. In fact, I was kind of excited to see their delivery ad showcasing Hawaiian pizza propped up on the television in the Hotel Aitana, my second of three lodgings. This one was geared toward middle class Mexican travelers, a little pricey and no concessions made to English-speakers.

Hotel aitana bathroom swan

When you get the swan towel treatment you know you’ve made it.

Casa maria lombardo oven

That didn’t mean I was going to order Domino’s, though. Casa Maria Lombardo, an Italian restaurant featuring dishes cooked in the wood-burning oven seemed like a more serious option. When I stopped in after Spanish class everyone was eating pizza and I was initially surprised at the lack of tourists, considering every relatively nice place–wines served, quirky décor like cheese grater lamps, stand-up metal purse hooks–I’d been to up until this point were inhabited by Americans.

Casa maria lombardo hawaiian pizza

So, Hawaiian it was. Size chico. The sweet-salty combination neither Italian, Mexican nor Hawaiian was transformed even further by the two condiments presented to all diners: salsa and ketchup. Clearly, there is an audience for the ketchup though the only people I’ve ever known to add the sweet tomato sauce to their pizza were Filipinos. Salsa made perfect sense, however, I always drizzle a little Sriracha on my slices. This was just a chunkier, fresher rendition. And the style at Casa Maria Lombardo was very sparing with the tomato sauce foundation. A little extra spicy tomato-based moisture didn’t hurt.

Casa maria lombardo pizza bottom

The crust had even scattered leopard spots charred on the bottom  but this is not the thin bubbly Neapolitan style appreciated in NYC. This was fork and knife pizza with enough structure to allow easy cutting. I don’t only enjoy pineapple on my pizza, I also refuse to fold, always going for the knife and fork even when plastic. Yes, I liked Mexican pizza.

Unflattering out of focus photo taken by a stranger Solo dining, I was generally invisible to all but bauble hawkers (who oddly never made an appearance in this restaurant) so I was surprised that a gentleman, one of two businessmen drinking lots of wine by the glass (they really should’ve just ordered a bottle) at the table next to me offered to take my photo. I think he felt bad seeing me by myself snapping shots of my food. Then I felt weird and explained that I actually like taking photos of my food and didn’t need a photo of myself then relented at the last minute because it might be the only one I’d have from this vacation. Unfortunately, it’s a blurry unflattering photo. He didn’t know how to use the camera and the flash was off and I have horrible blobby posture and was sunburnt. Even so, if I am to only have one photographic reminder of my Mexican vacation it should really involve Hawaiian pizza.

Casa Maria Lombardo * Abasolo 314, Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxacan Black Mole

Black mole with chicken

Mexican black mole. It really does have as many ingredients as you’ve heard—30 give or take in the version below—and yes, there can be too much of a good thing. Moles like this are reserved for celebrations because of the time involved in making them. But I think it’s also because this is some intensely flavored, seriously heavy food. I felt kind of guilty for getting completely mole’d out during my week in Oaxaca, but apparently that’s not unusual. The second cooking class I had steered clear of mole recipes because the instructor, herself, had burnt out on moles during a festival the week prior.

The first of two cooking classes I took in Oaxaca was from Pilar Cabrera at La Casa de los Sabores. I had no idea what to expect only having taken lessons abroad some time ago in Bangkok and a class in Singapore last year this very same week. Neither of these classes in Asia included market visits, though, because I can never get up early enough on vacation. It’s a miracle to make it out of the hotel before 11am

That’s one way that I benefited from traveling by myself. By having no late night temptations in Oaxaca, I went to bed before midnight and was able to report at 9am (an hour earlier than I normally show up at work) for shopping duties and chitchat with my fellow out-of-towners.

I’d already been in Oaxaca for three-and-a-half days floundering around over the weekend before taking this class. Consequently, I had already been to the Mercado de la Merced, a small market for locals, on the recommendation of my Spanish teacher. It was definitely helpful to go with a regular who knows the vendors and can explain unusual ingredients and techniques.

Taking photos of people in general, and especially in markets, isn’t my thing. Though of course photos of people tend to be my favorite subject to look at when shot by professionals. Both Dave Hagerman, the image half of Eating Asia and Austin Bush do this well, but I am not them. I just find it creepy to snap photos (especially with a flash) of people going about their business. It makes me feel more other than I already do. But I did loosen up a bit with these groups since the vendors were accustomed to it and we were instructed to ask not just start shooting. My sparing Mercado de la Merced snapshots are here.

Oaxacan chiles

I brought back a shitload of chiles. Well, not the shitload I originally was handed and had to give back because my small suitcase was already pushed to its limits. Left to right, chilhuacles, the deep brown round chiles seemed important since I was told they were native to Oaxaca. I also wasn’t convinced that I would find stubby mulatos in NYC. Pasilla de Oaxaca are smoked and also native to the region, but we used Mexican pasilla, the long skinny chile pictured. Having no sense of metric weight, I asked for medio-kilo of the chilhuacles and the small pillowcase sized plastic bag was filled to the top. Ah, no, I then went for quarto-kilo which was still a ton so I split it was a woman in class. This bag on the left contains a mere 1/8 kilo.

I chose this Tuesday session especially to learn how to cook black mole (Wednesday was Zapotecan conducted in Spanish and Thursday was tamales). My plan was to master it so I could recreate it for a dinner party the weekend after I got back to NYC. That would be tomorrow. I hope I don’t mess it up.

The full menu for my class included:
Quesadillas de flor de calabaza
Salsa de tomate y chile de agua
Mole negro con pollo
Arroz a la hierbabuena
Nieve de petals de rosas

More photos from the class are here.

Black mole ingredients
Oaxaca is often cited as having seven moles. But in reality, we were told, there are hundreds. Everyone has a variation and recipes differ by region even within Oaxaca State. Here is the recipe for the black mole we made. It certainly helps to have a group of 12-plus deft kitchen assistants to cut down on the prep time. This nice basket was already awaiting us after we returned from the market.

Black Mole with Chicken


4 chilhuacle chiles
8 mulato chiles
8 pasilla mexicano chiles
4 tablespoons lard
¼ cup almonds
¼ cup raisins
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
¼ cup pecans
¼ cup peanuts with skins
4 slices of egg bread (semisweet) torn in pieces
¼ cup sesame seeds
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/8 teaspoon oregano
4 avocado leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
1/8 teaspoon anise (a.k.a. fennel seeds)
3 whole cloves
1/8 teaspoon cumin
3 whole black peppercorns
2 plantains
1 tomato, roasted
3 tomatillos, roasted
3 cloves of garlic, roasted
¼ medium onion, roasted
4 cups chicken broth
8 pieces of boiled chicken
3 tablespoons sugar
½ cup Oaxacan chocolate
Salt to taste


 Clean the dried chiles with a damp cloth. Open the chiles by making a lengthwise slit down one side of each. Take out the seeds, veins and stems. Reserve the seeds.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the lard in a saucepan, and then fry the chiles. Remove the chiles from the saucepan as soon as they begin to change color and become crispy, and place them in a bowl lined with absorbent paper towel.

In another pan, heat the remaining lard and fry the raisins until they puff up and brown a bit. Remove the raisins and then add the almonds, pecans and peanuts frying for five minutes until they are a dark brown color, remove them from the pan. Then fry the pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cinnamon, anise, cloves, cumin and black peppercorns in the same pan, until they obtain a deep brown color. Remove them and then add the dried bread pieces to the remaining hot lard for two minutes, then remove.

Roast the tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic.

Place the spices, tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic and one cup of chicken broth in the blender. Blend until the mixture is smooth. Put into a bowl and set aside.

Place the fried chiles and one-and-a-half cups of chicken broth into the blender. Blend until the mixture is a smooth paste.

Remove the remaining lard from the pan in which the nuts and spices were fried. Pour into a deep pot, heat and then add the blended chiles. Cook for three minutes; then add the spice mixture and cook for three more minutes. Add the sugar and chocolate and stir for five minutes. The sauce is ready when, while stirring, the fat rises to the top of the mixture.

Add the rest of the chicken broth and season with salt. Cook for three more minutes over medium heat. Add the pieces of chicken before serving.

Garnish with fried plantain.

Serves six.

Ack, I just realized this recipe never says when to add in the thyme, oregano, marjoram or avocado leaves. I really want to say that the herbs get added with nuts and that the avocado leaves would be simmered whole in the final stages. But that's just how I would do it.

Grilled onion, tomatoes, tomatillos
Plantains frying, chiles frying too and tomatoes, tomatillos, onion and garlic being grilled.

Toasted herbs, spices, nuts 

Toasted herbs, spices and nuts.

Black mole puree 

Everything pureed with chicken broth minus the chiles.

Black mole chiles added 

The chiles (also pureed with chicken broth) give the black mole its deep color not the chocolate as many believe. Said chocolate and sugar are added at the very end.

La Biznaga

I was a little embarrassed to tell anyone that I ate at La Biznaga twice in one short week in Oaxaca. (Though I was more reticent to admit I was staying at the Holiday Inn Express, an unforeseen event that occurred after not being able to get wireless internet access to work at either the cheap and cheerful B&B or the middle class Mexican hotel I moved to the second night. By the third day I began feeling isolated and crazy since this wasn't intended as a get away from it all vacation. My phone wouldn’t work either even though I saw plenty of tourists using theirs. I packed it in and headed for the Holiday Inn where you could also put toilet paper in the toilets and drink the tap water, incidentally. Only then did I realize a wireless switch had been bumped to off on the front of my laptop, likely the problem all along. As punishment I was never able to receive stronger than a LOW signal at the American chain and webpages took five minutes to load, if they did at all before the network connection died.) To the Americans it implied you weren’t very adventurous and to the Oaxacans it made you look ostentatious.

La biznaga exterior

But it’s not expensive by even non-NYC American standards and I don’t believe it was completely filled with tourists, at least not from the US. I heard plenty of Spanish being spoken by large families with little kids, dates, same-sex and heterosexual, as well as by men with slick silver ponytails, rumpled earth toned suits and white sneakers, though I was told by two separate residents that the restaurant is popular with Chilangos (Mexico City residents). Maybe this was them.

I ended up at La Biznaga my first night and it appealed instantly because I have a terrible phobia of dining alone. I don’t even like to eat lunch by myself at casual worker bee spots so I always end up eating at my desk even though I know it's healthier to get out of the office for an hour. I’ve also never traveled alone before and food-wise (the main reason I travel) it did prove tough because you can’t share and get full too quickly to experiment. I never once got to sample a postre because I just didn’t have the capacity and felt weird and decadent about leaving parts of my appetizer and entrée behind in order to try dessert.

The room is dim, at least at night. It took me a while to realize we were under open skies. Many of the nicer restaurants in Oaxaca are set inside courtyards with a retractable roof. It seems classically Mexican but I never encountered this style once in Mexico City. I wouldn’t be so conspicuous, especially since I was always given a four-seater everywhere I ate and even more opposite of NYC, the tables were spaced with so much distance a person could stand between two, jump around and not touch either with arms outspread. The were enough distractions and ambient noise to deflect any unnecessary attention to my photographing my food (I did draw curious stares elsewhere). You can also smoke, which I only engage in NYC when I’m drinking or partying, which is to say not very often. But on vacation it’s a not-so-guilty pleasure; all health-related restrictions are ignored when I’m out of town. It’s a rare, rare restaurant in the world that lets you smoke indoors so I take advantage when I can. Non-dance club type bars seemed nonexistent and I felt like sitting in a cantina alone would be asking for trouble, despite my advanced age. However, I could see myself at La Biznaga with a glass of wine (or a shot of mezcal) and a cigarette.

The power of no (gracias) became very necessary, not just while fending off troubadours and bookmark, candy, jewelry, towel and painting vendors from ages six to 80 while sitting the tourist cafes surrounding the zocalo, but in the nicer restaurants, as well. In NYC, you really only get the occasional DVD vendor, usually Asian, in casual Latino restaurants around Jackson Heights and Sunset Park. The staff at La Biznaga allowed some of the little candy-and-bracelet-hawking kids sit at the bar and eat chips, which seemed kind. No one gets gruff with beggars and in turn, those asking for pesos aren't all that aggressive.

La biznaga amuse

I think I may have been starving on my first day in Oaxaca because the seemingly nothing special tomato, queso fresco and pesto bruschetta tasted like summer in winter (technically, late November). I think it was the salty cheese, not the tomatoes. The crumbly white stuff enlivens anything.

La biznaga ceviche

Ceviche de pescado, zanahorias y challotes. The appetizers, or entradas as they say, are substantial. If you'd eaten a heavy mole-sauced lunch, a starter would be plenty for your evening meal. I didn't know that, though. The type of fish wasn’t specified, though huachinango, red snapper seemed like the most common fish served in Oaxaca. The flesh was very firm and the flavor very tart and heavy on the lime. The creamy mayonnaisey (Mexicans like mayo almost as much as the Japanese) swirls toned down some of the acid. I'm guessing the carrots referenced in the title are what colored one of the sauces orange because I didn't detect the vegetable anywhere else.

La biznaga puntas con poblanos, cebollas y chorizo

Puntas con poblanos, cebollas y chorizo. Classic Mexican, not so much Oaxacan. A carne asada dish with frijoles and guacamole. I recreated this earlier this week minus the guacamole and chorizo with nice dry-aged flank steak from The Meathook. That was some damn fine meat for a workaday cut and I cooked mine much rarer.

One of my favorite phrases I learned in Spanish class was no vale la pena, it’s not worth it, because so much wasn’t like taking a six-hour bus ride from Mexico City to Oaxaca when the flight was only 40 minutes (never mind my layover was five hours—I’d rather sit in the airport than on a bus). My teacher described a salad served at La Biznaga as expensive but vale la pena.

 La biznaga nopales ensalada

Ensalada de nopales, tomate, queso y aceitunas. Out of curiosity I ordered it on my second visit right after that class. I didn’t expect it to be so hearty; those are slabs of queso beneath each cactus paddle and the olive oil was drizzled with a heavy hand. Dressed salads and salads in general are very un-Mexican I was later told in a cooking class so this was very nuevo. Salty, rich and also refreshing (I hadn’t eaten any vegetables up until this point) from the limey pickled onions composed in the center. I would definitely say it was vale la pena. It cost 59 pesos or $4.64 as of this writing.

La biznaga shrimp mole

Camarones al ajillo y mole de tamarindo. The expensive salad knocked out any appetite I may have originally had so it was hard to focus on the shrimp. The rice was a little undercooked and the mole was way sour from the tamarind. The shrimp did have more sea flavor than you typically find in the US.

Some would call the service leisurely, others might say neglectful. I thought I might never get my check. After meeting a couple in my first cooking class from Seattle who'd befriended friends from San Francisco at their hotel it turned out we'd all (as well, as two sisters from NYC, also in the class) been at La Biznaga the night before, and they remarked how everyone on staff was high. It would explain a lot.

 La Biznaga * Garcia Vigil 512, Oaxaca, Mexico

Hi and Bye

Ack, no time to blog or even write descriptions or properly tag these vacation photos. No matter, here is some Oaxaca randomness until I get a free moment.

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