Oaxaca restaurant review: some good came of the 2006 unrest
By Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.
It took a reduction in Oaxaca’s tourism and an increase in staff to bring La Biznaga back into my good books. While we never actually stopped patronizing the trendy, relaxed eatery in downtown Oaxaca, the painstakingly slow service coupled with a sometimes snooty attitude of the wait staff was enough to cause us to caution both our house guests and fellow residents. But word does get around, and that, combined with the reality check caused by the social and political unrest in the latter half of 2006 resulting in empty downtown streets (all now long gone) must have caused management to take a step back, re-evaluate, and act. And it’s worked.
The complacent attitude has disappeared. Once again waiters have smiles on their faces and interact with clientele with helpful suggestions, even when serving new faces. The staff complement has significantly increased, and now even includes a school-aged busboy-esque youngster.
Drinks and complimentary seasoned carrot sticks arrive promptly, orders are taken when you’re ready to proceed, with appetizers and main courses arriving without table discussion about how much longer to wait before just picking up and leaving.
And so a testimony to the always consistent quality and presentation of fare, and welcoming ambience, La Biznaga has managed to maintain a following of residents and tourists alike in the face of its earlier seemingly deliberate shortcomings.
The atmosphere is open courtyard, with a fashionable retractable roof protecting from mid-day sun and seasonal rains; tables and chairs are wood, á la simplicity of arts-and-crafts vogue, comfort enhanced by wicker seats and backs; a selection of palms willows off to one side, with tall leafy tree mid-court; the bar by design provides a focal point given that its selections are contained on an overhead blackboard; and a rotating selection of gallery art graces the walls. Music is most often jazz, but eclectically ranges off to other similar genres, thereby maintaining an air of coolness in the beatnik sense of the term.
Enormous chalkboards, one at either end of the restaurant, contain the menu selections, print somewhat cryptic … interesting to say the least. Be sure to bring your glasses, or strain your eyes over the tables of others, or simply get up and walk closer to the cartes du jour and you’ll be fine. On the other hand, our experience over the past three years has been that one cannot go too far wrong choosing blindly. Appetizers, soups and salads range from about 35 - 100 pesos, and entrées (meat, fish or fowl) come in at 65 to 200.
La Biznaga is known for its cocktails, and in particular its margaritas and mojitos, served as in the case with all other beverages, in classic Mexican blue accented thick hand-blown glassware (vidrio soplado). The mezcals are also noteworthy for the selections offered. Pretty well all of the bar servings are healthy, and prices across the board are competitive, mezcals beginning at, get this, 15 pesos.
But we’re here for dinner. La Silvestre is a mushroom soup, more in the nature of a light broth devoid of dairy, containing a selection of wild hongos including setas, along with bacon, onion and chile poblano … a must for toadstool enthusiasts. Rarely does a visit go by when I won’t indulge.
Las Calendas is a starter worthy of selection. While described as tamales, there is no corn, but rather squash blossom and melted string cheese (quesillo) enveloped with tender hierba santa leaf, an herb with a distinct taste used in preparation of many Oaxacan dishes yet not often enough as a single flavor source. You’re apt to recall, “so that’s the exquisite essence I’ve been enjoying all this trip.” The triptych is presented with sides of refried beans and diced spiced tomato, and topped with a drizzle of cream. Another worthy triumvirate is the Cerro Viejo, crunchy fried tortilla horns stuffed with seasoned sautéed hibiscus (jamaica) flower, presented with a center of guacamole crowned with chipotle peppers. It would be a mistake to not share each of these two tasters.
The grilled salmon is served over a bed of cilantro pesto, with lightly dressed side salad comprised of select lettuce, tomato and pineapple wedges which, together with pine nuts in the entrée provide complimentary crunches. The tuna, similar to the salmon in terms of a good sized serving prepared to the exact degree of doneness as demanded, arrives on a sea of avocado salsa and is topped with pico de gallo, a flavorful traditional combination of tomato, radish, cucumber, onion, chile and cilantro, with an added tang of lime. Finally, my own entrée on this outing consists of four filets of chicken breast each wrapped around a piece of cooked plantain with just enough walnut crumbles to be detected and welcomed, presented on a platter of puréed guava set off with swirls of cream.
The distinctive flavors one has just experienced almost call out for further indulgence, and thus dessert is difficult to neglect: on this evening healthy scoops of pistachio sorbet (nieve) are served in a margarita schooner, and chocolate truffle-cake (trufa) floats on a strawberry coulis.
It’s indeed a rarity for a restaurant to exhibit this level of consistency in quality of cuisine. Now if La Biznaga can only maintain a degree of humility translating into value-added service, there’s no stopping its continued success, nor reason for patrons to ever again hesitate stopping by.
La Biznaga, Garcia Vigil 512, Centro Histórico, Oaxaca (tel: 516-1800)
Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology in 1978. After teaching for a few years he attended Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, thereafter embarking upon a career as a litigator until 2004. Alvin now resides in Oaxaca, where he writes, leads small group tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sites, is a consultant to film production companies, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com) .