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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

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