A Travellerspoint blog

LA BIZNAGA IS BACK

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) .

Posted by titosarah 14:35 Archived in Mexico Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

EL MIRADOR SERVES UP MORE THAN A SPECTACULAR VIEW

Where the locals dine ... Oaxaca restaurant review

Arlene Starkman

Since 1978 El Mirador has been catering to almost exclusively Oaxacans, without help from the tourist dollar. It must be doing something right! There’s the breathtaking cliffside open air view of the city below and surrounding mountains, just up the road and across from the Auditorio Guelaguetza. Perhaps more important is the consistency of its food (I’ve been dining there for about ten years.)

Descending the staircase from the parking area you enter the main level with a relaxed mixed décor of rustica pine tables and chairs in the interior, and PVC Coke chairs with linen covered tables on the patio. There’s a juke box, glass case filled with stuffed animals which muchachos can purchase to impress their señoritas, and multicolored cut-out tissue banners. The lower level has a club style modern ambience, with ceiling-high picture windows to assure the same exquisite vista, lengthy bar, raised band platform and big-screen TV. Here in the evenings you can enjoy the sounds of a guitar strumming troubadour, and Thursday through Saturday dance salsa and cumbia to the beat of a local band. Depending on the hour and day, patrons consist of friends out for an evening, work colleagues, young lovers, fiesta celebrants, and invariable during Guelaguetza, groups of dancers from throughout the state. On a Thursday evening in June, by the time we left at 11 PM both levels were at 75% capacity.

Service is reliable with a surprisingly good complement of waiters. Drinks from an extensive bar menu arrive promptly. If you haven’t tried a michelada, beer mixed with a spicy chili/lime concoction, experience it here. Salads and soups are reliable staples to begin, but for the former, stick to the green or mixed salad, since the “chef” is mainly meats and cheese atop a mound of iceberg. My daughter’s shrimp soup was light, deliciously tomato based, containing a good count of fresh camarones. For a botana I would avoid the cold cheese and meat platter, unless you’re a head cheese fan. However, both the Botanas Mirador and Oaxaqueña are scrumptious, arriving hot with samplings of traditional meats, and additional appetizers in the case of the latter. If you’re out for a light meal, consider skipping the entrée since portions are healthy. I nevertheless went for the skewered meat plate (alambre)...tender beef, tomato, yellow pepper and onion, over a bed of rice, accompanied by fries with a welcomed medley of steamed veggies.

The tlayudas and parrilladas are highly recommended. Tlayudas are oversized tortillas. They are served crunchy with a light layer of requisite asiento and refried beans, then topped with lettuce and both traditional Oaxacan cheeses. Try ordering with your choice of beef (tasajo), chili seasoned pork (cecina), or sausage (chorizo.) The tlayudas at El Mirador are among the best I’ve had. The parrillada: a hibachi-type BBQ arrives at your table, coals still aflame so as to complete the grilling of an impressive array of Oaxacan meats and vegetables including nopal and onions, sizzling with quesillo. It’s accompanied by tortillas, guacamole, salsa, a saucy bean and salchicha side dish known as charros. If you opt for this meal, go easy on the appetizers, perhaps with just a meatless tlayuda to start.

El Mirador offers casual, moderately priced dining…or an opportunity to get out for a cappuccino or drinks with light snacks. Downstairs there’s a 25 peso cover when the band plays.

Carr. Internacional KM. 3 S/N, Cerro del Fortín, Oaxaca. Tel: 51-6-58-20

Arlene Starkman together with husband Alvin operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ). Arlene is an English teacher, psychotherapist and occasional restaurant critic.

Posted by titosarah 14:33 Archived in Mexico Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

LA OLLA - DOWNTOWN OAXACA RESTAURANT REVIEW

Both tourists and residents swear by it

Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.

Sit down in most small restaurants in Oaxaca, order the comida corrida (full meal, daily special) and as fast as the Flying Burrito Brothers your server arrives with a bowl of tepid soup with miniscule floating grease bubbles, a healthy portion of fried-in-oil-then-boiled white rice flecked with cubed carrot, a small piece of overcooked meat or poultry swimming in a scrumptiously tangy mole, a glass of fruity water-of-the-day (agua del día), and a two-inch slab of flan to finish … on the other hand there’s La Olla.

At popular downtown bistro-style restaurant La Olla, whether patrons indeed order the daily special, or select from the menu, co-owner-chef Pilar Cabrera offers the polar opposite --- a healthy yet flavorful and traditionally herbed alternative. She and husband Luis for years have had a faithful following of tourists and residents alike. This welcoming oasis has managed to thrive without my business, I suppose because while living in Oaxaca I’ve learned to live with lard, pine for Pan Bimbo and bolillos (respectively, the Mexican equivalent to starch-white Wonderbread, and crusty Portuguese-style buns), and search out everything else sugary, processed and refined. The sixties’ all-things-good-for-you mentality had been baked out of mind forever, or so I had thought.

La Olla is a thirty-seat eatery with simple wooden tables and chairs and an adobe-brick and hand-painted tile hearth as focal point, on the main floor. A larger dining room with bar is upstairs. The restaurant is adorned with art by Oaxacan artists who exhibit on a rotating basis.

On this visit, my wife and our daughter Sarah chose from la carta, while I, daring the kitchen to even try to reduce my cholesterol level, opted for the 70 peso complete comida. Almost immediately upon being seated, a small loaf of fresh, hand-sliced whole grain bread, alongside tortilla chips, arrived in a basket, accompanied by butter, salsa and marinated vegetables. Predictably, Arlene gravitated towards the un-husked while I munched on the fried masa (corn).

I hadn’t drank anything green since listening to Deep Purple, Moby Grape and the early years of Pink Floyd, so when tall soda-fountain glasses of what appeared to be murky algae arrived, I was aghast --- pineapple celery juice. I had no choice. I wasn’t even asked if I would prefer Red Bull, or anything else with first ingredient dextrose, fructose or caffeine. It was well-chilled, with just the right combination of fruit and vegetable so as to provide a refreshing naturally sweet nectar, neither ingredient masking the flavor of the other.

The psychedelia continued. Who would ever think of combining peanuts, jícama (yam bean), orange pieces and boiled beet in its juices, and then having the nerve to call it a salad? I was in a purple haze. Definitely not the limp lettuce to which I’d become accustomed, drenched in a sea of joyful oil. Crunch and munch, followed by a sunburst of citrus, then soft legume, with seemingly more flavors, textures, colors and tones than the totality of each individual component.

Thankfully my soup held no surprises, although lima beans are not normally regular restaurant fare in Oaxaca, or elsewhere in this hemisphere. They were complemented by nopal (paddle cactus), onion, tomato with seed, and cheese, chile providing the requisite bite. Once again, attention had been paid to ensuring different degrees of consistency.

The chicken fajitas, on the other hand, were not as expected. But by this time I had reverted to my former self of decades long past, and willingly welcomed a main dish lacking excess grease. The strips of chicken breast were tender. The vegetables had been prepared separately so as to maintain their individual, appropriate degrees of doneness. The liquid was more in the nature of light stew juices than canola á la wok. The seasoning was Italian, yet with the pleasing essence of fresh cilantro predominating.

Sarah’s organic salad mirrored mine in terms of flavor and texture, but was sliced baked apple, watermelon chunks, flax seed and goat cheese. Her sopa azteca was inimitably served. Most Oaxacan restaurants serve all ingredients already combined, or the potage and some ingredients arriving already mixed together with those remaining on the side. At La Olla the tortilla slivers, cubed queso (cheese), avocado and dried chile pasillo strips are presented in a bowl, over which is then poured the tomato-based broth. Unfortunately the rich and distinctive flavor of the chile is not readily apparent due to the way the soup is served, so it’s best to either stir and wait, or add some salsa and fresh lime juice to achieve maximum zestiness … unless you have a cowardly palate.

Arlene ordered the guachinango (snapper), deviating from her general rule of avoiding fish and seafood while in Mexico’s interior. This new menu item is a keeper. Two good-size portions of properly pouched pisces, each wrapped in aromatic yierba santa leaf, were offered on a plate ringed with salsa guajillo. Once again there was a healthy bit of heat, and different textures provided by plaintain, nopal and jícama.

Our only regret was not having had an opportunity to sample some of the other natural fruit and vegetable combination juices and one of the hale and hearty sandwiches, for which La Olla is known. Perhaps next time … with alfalfa sprouts on the side, por favor.

La Olla
Calle Reforma No. 402
Centro Histórico, Oaxaca
Hours: Mon – Sat, 8 am – 10 pm
Live music Fri and Sat night, 8 – 10
T: (951) 516-6668
W: http://www.laolla.com.mx ; http://www.mexonline.com/sabores.htm
E: bbsabores@prodigy.net.mx

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.

Posted by titosarah 14:28 Archived in Mexico Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

EL PATIO - RESTAURANT REVIEW (OUT OF THE CITY)

En route to Tlacolula, keep driving

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

Between the Oaxacan rug village of Teotitlán del Valle and the Sunday market town of Tlacolula, en route to the Zapotec ruin of Mitla, one finds El patio, a restaurant of contrasts and inconsistencies, intriguing because somehow the open air setting and general ambience is apt to draw you back every once in a while, notwithstanding that there are other restaurants along that stretch of road with more to offer in terms of reliability.

We’ve been frequenting the eatery on an occasional basis for perhaps 7 or 8 years now, and keep doing so. It’s the expansive courtyard with comfortable breezes, the choice of seating in sun or shade, soft music broken only by the sounds of parrots vying for your attention, and pleasing and unique (for Oaxaca) décor…partially antique with vintage photos of Mexican screen stars, 50’s and earlier typewriters and other collectibles, alongside traditional Oaxacan with a mix of crafts and more customary wall art adorning the patio floors and walls respectively. The comfortable and relaxed atmosphere together with our recollection of usually reliable fare constitute the allure.

Once drinks finally arrive, the wait for the complimentary memelitas and the rest of the meal is not unreasonable. If the mezcal tasting bar and gift shop were open on a consistent basis (there’s certainly enough staff milling about to warrant hours of operation similar to that of the restaurant) one could understand the initial tardiness. But then again prudent use of labor has never characterized the Oaxacan worldview.

On this occasion perhaps 75% of what the four of us ordered could be described as “good,” but no more. So if you stick to the recommendations herein, and trust that there will be ongoing consistency in terms the ability of patrons to discern flavor combinations, freshness and keeping grease and fat under control, the percentage likelihood of each guest having a positive memorable dining experience could elevate to 90.

The sopa de guias, usually a reliable and always a typical dish was in fact better than how it is generally encountered. Rather than with a thick mix of corn starch as base, it was surprisingly light and not gooey, including the requisite squash along with the plant’s blossom and runners and portion of corn. Ordered as a meal it comes with traditional tlayuda, an oversized tortilla topped with queso, quesillo, avocado, lettuce and tomato, and then with a healthy piece of flavorful tasajo placed atop. In this case the smokiness from the firewood used to heat and melt the toppings was a dominant essence.

Other dishes which serve the needs of the health conscious include the pollo a la plancha, a large boneless pounded then grilled chicken breast, served with veggies and starch, or if you prefer a double side of simply boiled-for-a-baby zucchini and carrots. My brother’s sopa mixteca, a thick vegetable soup, was a bit light on flavor, but nevertheless served his obsessive need for fatless fare, quite the contrast to my caldo de gato, a meal sized tomato based vegetable soup which includes a couple of chunks of meaty pork spine. Even the almost always reliable squeezing in a couple of lime halves was unable to cut through the grease floating atop, bringing back memories of the Exxon Valdez.

Our party’s meals were rounded out with a salad and mole. The former was typical to the extent that its ingredients were laid out separately on the plate, consisting of nicely grilled nopal paddles and zucchini slices, purple onion pieces and too many thick sticks of panela, a cross between Oaxacan queso, pressed cottage and Philadelphia cheeses. The estofado de pollo was once again accompanied by a green and orange medley of boiled not steamed. The main dish consisted of the correct combination of ingredients composing the mole (raisins, almonds, olives, miltomate, etc.) and would be pleasing to most. But for those yearning to experience the orgasmic sensation often associated with the reputation of Oaxacan cookery, the ingredients failed to maintain their individuality and ability to be discerned in the mix. For me that’s the hallmark of a quality and unforgettable, prepared to order or at minimum same day, which in both cases clearly this was not.

Our recollection was that indeed the café de olla is good, and a couple of their desserts are worth trying, but with only a mediocre dining experience, one tends to not wish to prolong the encounter. On a hot sunny day when yearning for a comfy and relaxed setting, or if you’ve already passed El Descano in Teotitlán del Valle and are too hungry to wait until your arrival at Doña Chica’s in Mitla (each of which is more reliable though not unique in setting), then drop in at El Patio for a comida. As long as my wife has her way, that’s what we’ll probably continue to do.

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) .

Posted by titosarah 14:24 Archived in Mexico Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

LOS ALMENDROS - OAXACA RESTAURANT REVIEW

Oaxacans can't stay away

Middle class residents of major American and Canadian cities tend to have their favorite all-day Sunday brunch haunts…relaxed, clean, diner-style restaurants dishing up home cooking in a comfortable familiar environment. Six days a week from 1 to 6 pm Los Almendros serves such a function for local Oaxacans. Tucked away on a cobblestone privada close to Blvd. Manuel Ruiz in Colonia Reforma, a few blocks northeast of the baseball stadium, Lionel Leyva with wife Soledad and family have been greeting friends and new devotees since 1974. You can’t help but feel at home in this Cheers-esque setting as you watch Lionel greet his own set of Frazier Cranes .

Upon entering the quadrangle-shaped comedor you’re struck by its warmth and amiability, without a trace of pretension. Wooden tables with traditional colorful woven cloths are covered with thick plastic. Walls are adorned with framed photos of the owners with family and patrons of celebrity…no politicians, but rather actors, singers and songwriters. Two mounted deer busts serve as testimony that the Leyvas do things their way, and the throngs of faithful as evidence of approval.

The menu is limited to perhaps 15 or 20 authentic Oaxacan plates, some of which are appetizers. You can choose daily specials not often found in other local eateries. All is á la carte, so begin with one or two of the modestly priced botanas, perhaps memelas or an appetizer sized grilled meat dish, each of which is accompanied by salsa and guacamole. The house mezcal is noteworthy and definitely worth sampling if nothing else. For this visit Lionel had a tobalá and a surprisingly smooth gusano.

Although we arrived relatively early for this comida, by the time we were ready to order entrées, surprisingly the Sunday staple of Barbacoa de Borrego (bbq goat) had been sold out to patrons who knew better than we did to order ahead or for take-out. All was not lost, however, since my wife’s main dish of tender pork ribs was prepared in the same style as one of the traditional barbeque recipes, baked in a tangy sauce and enveloped in foil. Try the black beans with aromatic flavor of hierba de conejo as a side dish to any of the grilled or baked meats. I began with a generous, piping hot serving of absolutely spectacular caldo de espinazo with an assortment of carrots, beans, potatoes and requisite pork, flavored with chili pasillo and accompanied by a dish of sliced lime, chopped onion and serrano chili for added acidity, spice and texture. That, after appetizers and some of the better tortillas I’ve had in a while should have been enough, but the tongue in its traditional mole called out to me. With whole black and green olives, and a tomato based sauce flavored with onion, garlic, raisin and almond, this bowl of lean, succulent sliced meat ranked with the best. To complete the meal, if you haven’t had cajeta, the goat’s milk caramelized sweet, try it here in a light gelatin, alongside a cup of café de olla.

Just as the regulars returned to that immortalized Boston bistro every week, you too will be drawn back to Los Almendros time and again, if not on a subsequent visit during this trip to Oaxaca, then upon your return… and greeted just as warmly as the old gang.

Notes: Comida only, 1 – 6 pm
Closed Thursdays
Beer, spirits and liqueurs
Full meal incl beverage 70 – 90 pesos

Comedor Familiar Los Almendros
3ra Privada de Almendros #109,
Col. Reforma, Oaxaca
tel: 515-2863

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) .

Posted by titosarah 14:22 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

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