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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

Undergrad Grub

Apricot turkey According to Sodexo's "2010 College Food Trends" report the number one cafeteria item next year will be Apricot-Glazed Turkey. Er, okay. Number four is the very specific Vegetarian Lentil Shepherd's Pie.

I favor numbers three and five: Vietnamese Pho (Rice Noodle Soup) and Chicken Adobo (Mexican Stew with Chilies) even if chicken adobo is better known as the national dish of the Philippines.

The campus favorites by region are more straightforward—meatloaf, potpie—roast beef—with the exception of fish tacos for the Southwest.

I didn't go to a college with a cafeteria (I ate Chinese takeout from Safeway, jo jo potatoes from the same Safeway deli and sandwiches I made from cream cheese, avocado and fake crab) so food prepared specifically for youngsters enrolled in higher learning institutions is foreign and interesting. Same too, dorms.

Apricot-glazed turkey photo from Taste of Home, America's highest circulation food magazine. The dish must be more popular than I thought.

Chain Links: Bready

Chick-fil-A tied with McDonald’s as America’s favorite quick serve restaurant according to a Market Force Information Inc. survey. Panera Bread and Subway also had a strong showing.

Subway takes the number one spot on Entrepreneur's Franchise 500 list. Twenty-one sandwich shops made the list in total

Quiznos and Subway seem to get all the glory, but that’s not stopping Blimpie from beginning its Middle Eastern expansion in Kuwait next year.

Not sandwich-related unless you count that doughnut burger, Krispy Kreme is coming to Shanghai.

They Do Have Cilantro and Chiles In Common

Indiatacobell At this point I would’ve imagined that American chains had done a good job of infiltrating the world. That’s why I’m often surprised to learn of a new one staking their claim. Yum Brands has had Pizza Hut and KFC in India for some time.

Now they’re introducing Taco Bell and going for the youth market. Niren Chaudhary, general manager of Yum's India business says, "What consumers are looking for is not an Indian version of Mexican food but a truly Mexican-inspired food experience.”

I have absolutely no idea what a Mexican-inspired food experience might be—will it involve piñatas and sombreros?

Illustration from Our Delhi Struggle.

You Could Already Be a Winner

Chainshirt So, the latest food-based reality show will center on personal chefs. All well and good but I’m still stuck on the tentatively named United Plates of America, a reality show competition focused on chain restaurant concepts.

Sadly, the window of opportunity for the chain I dreamt up in the late ‘90s: Totally Grubbin’ has long passed (a glass half-full blogger would call themselves a pioneer for having 11-year-old posts to refer to; I would use a different word to describe writing barely read nonsense online for over a decade). Now that it’s almost the 2010s I can't imagine there is a swath of America left that would be interested in anything tribal and Xtreme. For the modern consumer I might suggest an Ed Hardy theme restaurant.

Here are a few other concepts ripe for going national.

F.I.Y: fry-it-yourself fun where all tables are equipped with a built-in fryolator Korean barbecue-style. The restaurant provides the raw material and you simply batter and dip away. Does it get any fresher? There will be vegetable tempura for the dainty, fried chicken for the a la minute set, butter balls and Oreos for carnies and 10-patty cheeseburgers for the This is Why You're Fat crowd. Perhaps there will be a menu of batters to choose from. Ranch dip would most certainly be involved.

We must not let the Asians have all the fun. Sure, they’ve already taken the prison and hospital themes, not to mention a mayonnaise restaurant. And you thought eating from a toilet bowl was depraved? Please. Mixologists cover your ears, our bar will be called Douchebag, and yes, all drinks will be served in one. Who cares if the insult has been declared over or that just as with belted sanitary napkins, no one actually knows what a douchebag is anymore. Enemas? Now, that’s a concept for only a select few. I used to know people who would do wine enemas in public restrooms. The idea was to get drunker faster. I am sure there is a target audience for this somewhere in the US and I would love to be the one to introduce the idea on network television.

Gulp! If Rolling Stone can brand dining so can Yelp! and with a $500 million Google deal anything’s possible. Why not cut out the middle man and offer free food directly to Yelpers while providing handheld devices for instant reviews? Each week a different restaurant could have their fare featured in the cafe.

In a Nutshell will only serve allergens: peanuts, shellfish, gluten-rich foods. I see peanut-sauced shrimp over wheat pasta being a big seller.

In reality, I would like to see an American-style indoor hawker center like Food Republic in Singapore. I've always imagined that if I were an kooky rich person like Michael Jackson I would build my Neverland of chefs flown from all over SE Asia to pretty much accommodate me and guests of my choosing (who might just include a grown Macaulay Culkin). If I were really rich and eccentric I would devote my resources into creating a Stargate-type device that could transport me anywhere on the globe for a meal and then return me safely to my apartment. But minus any aliens or ethnically ambiguous people (him too).

Thank You For Being a Friend


Why am I just now hearing about a tapas bar in Granada, Spain called El Rincón de Michael Landon?

Apparently, they have Michael Landon trivia nights on Wednesdays and name the dishes after ‘80s shows. The French fries are “Las Chicas de Oro.” Yes, The Golden Girls. And best of all, the morcilla has been dubbed Webster.

 I guess naming a small brown sausage after Emmanuel Lewis is no worse than Malaysians calling their black-and-white soy milk and black grass jelly drink a Michael Jackson.

Sadly, I can’t find much of anything written about this bar in English. And even sadder are my extremely rare Photoshop attempts (ok, I’m lying—I have Paint Shop Pro).

Most Wanted: Jose Tejas

Garnimal “Can you help me locate a place to purchase the sunglasses that is on the piece of fruit in the drink picture on your website?”

While this plea, important enough to send directly through email, seems nonsensical and vague on the surface, I immediately knew what the searcher was looking for. Unfortunately, I have no clue where Cheeseburger in Paradise obtains the miniature eyewear for their “garnimals” (not to be confused with garanimals).

Which isn’t to say there’s not a bevy of shrunken sunglasses available online: not only hawks sunglasses pins for zebra t-shirts, they showcase a photo of garnimals. Bingo. They are also a premier source for dickeys.

ImagineArt7 has John Lennon-style glasses.

Vintage plastic glasses for dolls.

Also, I’ve never seen a television ad for Cheeseburger in Paradise, but someone’s been auditioning for garnimal voice work.

From the search log:

2. jose tejas menu

Ok, that’s easy.

3. pictures jose tejas woodbridge

Also, a snap. And I just learned of the existence of The Unofficial Woodbridge, NJ Flickr Group. So, there’s an official one?

4. what does jose tejas mean in english

Probably whatever Carl’s Jr. means in Spanish.


Applebee's buttom

Maybe getting your server’s attention is a common problem in casual dining chains–hence the need for Applebee’s introducing a device to buzz your waiter–but I’ve always found the opposite to be true.

Then again, I’m probably a nightmare for servers because I eat incredibly slow and always throw off the pacing. I’m never ready when they periodically check-in and the entrée always shows up way before I’m done with my starter. I need an anti-buzzer.

However, Jan Higgins, 42, of Deltona, loves the concept. "The idea that we don't have to wait, we don't have to flag somebody down, that's awesome."

Photo: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel

The Dinner Party that Wasn’t

Despite sharp back and stomach pains kicking in a few hours after eating an enormous wedge of red velvet cake, I don’t think sugar overdose was the culprit. I’m not convinced that food even had anything to do with it. All I know was that I was unable to eat and alternated between shivering and sweating for the next four days.

The biggest victim was my already low key dinner party that I had planned a month in advance to test out my mole making skills after returning from Oaxaca and to eat some Thanksgiving food staples that I would've missed out on by not being in the US. So, the dinner party turned into an even lower key Sunday late brunch. I couldn’t wait until the following Saturday or all my groceries would’ve rotted. Never mind the issue of cooking for people when possibly teeming with virulent germs like a modern Typhoid Mary.

The first thing I discovered was that my cooking class recipe was missing vital steps in the directions. At no point does mention adding the thyme, oregano, marjoram or avocado leaves (so I didn't notice until the next day) or what to do with the roasted onion, garlic and tomatillos (which I did catch and rectify). Also, my blender seriously couldn’t handle all the grinding and I had to get a second run using an immersion blender. What I really needed was the star of Will It Blend?

Belated thanksgiving turkey mole

But the end result was surprisingly good, extremely thick even after thinning down with quite a bit of chicken broth (I thinned it down even more later) and spicier than expected much more vibrant than dull heavy moles you often get in restaurants. It was served atop turkey to go with my belated Thanksgiving theme (yes, the plates and tablecloth had already moved on) and also because it's a traditional poultry for fiestas. I think my ingredients didn’t get as toasted as they did in class because mine came out a more burnished brown than black but not off from a perfectly authentic black mole I had at Las Quince Letras. I doubled the recipe to 12, which is really more like 20. I know I will be happy to find the remainder in my freezer in a few months.

Horchata-sm Horchata as a cocktail base seemed fitting and being on my mezcal kick, Death & Company’s Smoked Horchata (pictured—I didn't take a photo) fulfilled both needs. That was why Friday night after being home sick all day, I forced myself out of pajamas and into sampling mode. Tasting the original was important. Yet the usual pleasant vegetal undertones of the tequila wasn’t sitting right with my stomach and the fat from the pork belly snack we ordered only worsened matters. Super horchata When pork and alcohol, my two favorite vices, cause distress I know something is seriously wrong. I had to jump up and leave instead of ordering a second cocktail.  The odd thing about this particular drink, especially since it was listed under a Ladies’ Choice heading (or some such), was that it could’ve been a touch sweeter and I don’t normally like sweet drinks.

We added a bit more cinnamon simple syrup when we made our version and used instant horchata because crafting a ricey beverage from scratch was way too much to tackle. The mole was enough. Don’t you love the logo from Salvadoran brand Dona Lisa?

Belated thanksgiving sweet potatoes

Fiery sweet potatoes with coconut milk and Sriracha came from a recent New York Times article. They were ok, I don't find sweet potatoes particularly inspiring ever.

Belated thanksgiving spicy brussels sprouts with mint & rice krispies

Dead opposite were the David Chang spicy brussels sprouts with mint from Food & Wine. The sweet-salty fish sauce dressing was perfect and the toasted chile-coated Rice Krispies and sesame seeds on top added both snap, crackle pop texture and heat. This is a side to tuck away for future weeknight usage.

Belated thanksgiving stuffing

This fruit-studded Oaxacan stuffing was featured in the November Saveur. (I love all the pedantic comments about the ingredients not being Oaxacan. I guess it would be a bit like me making up a stuffing, possibly substituting bagels chunks for bread [has anyone done that?] and calling it Brooklyn stuffing but who really cares if it tastes good).  I chose it not only because it was timely but also because it was meat-free (I try to keep sides with vegetarians in mind).

Interestingly, I ended up cooking the budin de tamala y pan featured in the same article while taking a cooking class with Susana Trilling the day before Thanksgiving. It was so much better than it sounded on paper (or maybe I just don't find bread pudding compelling) perhaps because we made ours with a caramel sauce spiked with passionfruit crema de mezcal instead of rum. This dish convinced me to pick up a bottle of the sweetened spirit (El Rey Zapoteco) which initially I thought would be cloying. If I weren't already dead set on the ode to Gourmet’s bourbon pumpkin cheesecake, I would’ve switched to this dessert.

Belated thanksgiving chipotle cranberry relish

Chipotle cranberry sauce. I just realized this Bon Appetit recipe is from Marlena Spieler, whom I follow on Twitter. So weird, Twitter, I also got a DM from Rick Bayless this evening. 

Belated thanksgiving bourbon pecan pumpkin cheesecake

Back to that Gourmet pumpkin cheesecake with bourbon sour cream topping. I've been thinking about this particular recipe ever since the venerable magazine was given a death sentence a few months ago. The criticism that Gourmet was a fount of elitism just didn't ring true with me. (The recipes in Saveur, for example, are more obscure and hold to no 30-minute-and-under meals format yet the magazine is thriving. And the fun Frank Bruni article in the latest Food & Wine where he harasses Le Bernadin’s sommelier contains recipes rife with ingredients no average American would have on hand: sea beans, veal demiglace, herbes de Provence, escolar, wagyu beef, to name a few. ) I first baked this particular cheesecake for Thanksgiving in 1990, the year the recipe originally ran.

Despite never being much of a cook and seriously not using an oven for all of 1990, my mom was still a Gourmet subscriber (as well as a reader of Sunset and Victoria—anyone remember that flowery-powdery mag? Ha, it still exists). I can say with 99% certainty that she never made a single thing from it but the fact that it ended up in the living room of our apartment at all says something. My 2009 mom can’t stand keeping it real, everyman Tony Bourdain because in her mind he’s a snob. I think that special where he went on about his $1,000+ meal at Masa kind of had something to do with it.

1990 was the year that I would've gone off to college, lived in a dorm, played beer pong, gained literary references for future cocktail parties and had all sorts of independent life changing experiences if I were a TV kid (even if I were a TV kid I would not join a sorority). Instead, I went to a teeny tiny art school almost exclusively on student loans (which I might actually still be paying off—it’s too painful to calculate) and couldn’t afford to move out of the house. It was one step up from community college and wasn't unusual. My best friend that year also lived with his family (including his morbidly obese mom who put him over his knee and maniacally spanked him in front of shocked guests including myself on his 19th birthday) across the Columbia River in Vancouver. 

I brought this pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving dinner with my mom and I think my sister at my then boyfriend’s mom’s apartment, one of those sprawling ‘70s complexes with outdoor staircases, The Birnamwood, next to Mt. Hood Community College, the higher education institute that I would rather incur debt to avoid attending (my wizened, bearded and denim-vested hippie English teacher disparaged the place as "high school with ashtrays" but I just discovered that even that has changed).

Despite being easy to cook and kind of foolproof, the cheesecake seemed very classy, maybe because of the bourbon, maybe pecans were expensive. I didn't even bother with the 16 decorative halves on top this year, leaving the creamy porcelain surface naked because I'm frugal by nature and was using a bag of nut bits from Trader Joe's.

I also made this cheesecake when it was republished in Gourmet in 2003 and was then shocked that 13 years had passed. Now it has been 19 and I am training myself to stop being distressed over years disappearing with increasing frequency because it’s only going to get worse. Not having children, rapidly growing human timepieces, does tend to mute the passing of time. (If I had a child in 1990 when I was a young but legal adult that child would now be a young but legal adult and could be baking me a pumpkin cheesecake.) The only upside to Gourmet ceasing publication is that I won’t have any future recipe reprints reminding me how swiftly the world moves forward.