You wanna see what a real Oaxacan bar and eatery is like?
Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.
Swing open the saloon doors, walk down a few steps, and have a seat at one of the ten or so orange arborite tables. Clint Eastwood might have parked himself on a wooden stool, instead of a matching 1960’s vinyl covered stainless steel padded chair, but you get the idea. And yet somehow, the shiny, brand spanking new digital juke box does not seem particularly incongruous.
El Faro is a small bar in Colonia Reforma, about a ten minute taxi ride from Oaxaca’s zócalo. It serves nothing but liquor and the finest in typical, filling, and usually fried finger foods and other quickly prepared local fare.
The purpose of this visit was to try the reknowned marinated onions…and then have co-owner Marta provide our pre-arranged lesson on how to prepare them. But our hostess was so gracious and accommodating, and more importantly willing to sell the preparation to us in bulk, that the working part of the adventure thankfully fell by the wayside.
Now down to indulging…nothing left to do but munch away and imbibe. But be careful with the latter. Liquor is served clearly without any consideration given to portioning, and a couple of drinks will leave you feeling like four.
Los tragos arrive promptly, alongside shelled peanuts, made on the premises with course salt and spices, a Oaxacan staple. Of course quartered limes, sal de gusano, and other accompaniments arrive depending on choice of beverage.
The parade then begins, starting with a burst of smoky flavor and spice constituting our marinated onion slices. While vinegar is the main ingredient, the unique and appealing flavor of chile pasillo, with a mixture of spices, predominates, creating an appealing uniqueness. Certainly it bears some similarity to piedrasos, often sold on street corners in large glass containers and served with marinated vegetables over giant chunks of toasted bread. So encountering this tart treasure in a sit-down environment was indeed a true find.
A tlayuda is set before us in short order, prepared without any excess baggage. The large crunchy oversized baked tortilla is made with requisite asiento (schmaltz, as my grandmother would say, but this fat isn’t from a chicken) and a thin paste of chile de arbol, topped with queso. Forget the vegetables, refried beans and meat typifying most tlayuda toppings. All in due course.
Marinated serrano chiles with onion slices (rajas), additional salsas, and guacamole follow, rounding out the sides.
A plate of fast-fried potato pieces known as bolas de fuego (fire balls) is placed before us. Seasoned with some type of chile, perhaps paprika, and without a doubt garlic, these crisp-on-the-outside golden goodies do not disappoint, being true to their name.
Frijoles con pata is black beans served in a bowl with boiled pork foot. It’s a traditional dish, and in fact our Oaxacan friends ate the gelatinous vittles with great gusto. But it’s equally a taste, and texture, which many North Americans take time to acquire. Fifteen years later, we’re still working on it. The salsas do help.
The empanadas de seso (beef brain) are the best we’ve had anywhere, anytime. While fried as is the custom, these little filled turnovers are lacking the customary double dose of oil, making them as close to a baked botana as one can find. Guacamole is the preferred dipping sauce, since there’s already a bit of spice in the stuffing.
We rounded out our experience with two meat dishes combined on a single platter: costillas enchiladas (spare ribs coated with a chile mixture) which were well cooked as I had requested, and had plenty of meat on and off the bone; and tasajo (a thin filet of lightly seasoned beef) which arrived tender and juicy, and not at all over-cooked (often an issue in Oaxacan eateries), already cut into (large) bite sized pieces.
El Faro isn’t for every traveler. But there are many who walk by such establishments, take and quick peek in, are clearly intrigued, and then say “no, we’d better not.” At El Faro, you can.
El Faro. Jasminez 222-B, Colonia Reforma. Mon to Sat, 9am to 10pm
Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ). Alvin received his masters in social anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. Thereafter he was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and when they became permanent residents in 2004. Alvin reviews restaurants, writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, and tours couples and families to the villages.