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VIEJA LIRA - OAXACA RESTAURANT REVIEW

When you tire of moles, tlayudas, cecina, and other Oaxacan fare, why not go for pizza

Vieja Lira Trattoria & Pizzeria

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

Thankfully the recent expansion from 24 to 40 seats hasn’t detracted from the intimacy and quaintness of this downtown Italian restaurant and pizzeria. It still has classy yet welcoming décor of deep cranberry and white walls, simple pine tables and cushioned chairs stained dark to enhance a bistro-like feeling, and not to be overshadowed, floor-length draperies well-matched to the magenta / wine tones. The soft sound of jazz heard from the street is alone enough to make you want to take a peak in, and then you’re hooked.

You’re warmly welcomed by Italian owner Simone, who is almost always on hand. His presence remains, yet more in the nature of consultant, available to make suggestions, innately knowing when his attention is needed, and when not. He advises regarding selections from the printed menu, or large blackboard. We’ve never been disappointed with his wine recommendations, each having been carefully chosen by Simone so as to ensure appropriate pairing of food with wine, as well as affordability for middle-of-the-road patrons.

The primary culinary reason for visiting Vieja Lira is its pizzas. However, the fish, seafood, pastas and zuppas run a very close second. And even if the temptation to order a traditional plato fuerte is too great to resist, and you’re inclined to pass on the pizza, suggest to others in your party that pizza as one of the appetizers might satisfy the curiosity if not secret yearning of all.

Drinks arrive almost as readily as the crusty, soft yet dense bread, hand-cut to be drizzled with the herb infused olive oil or perhaps some paste-like salsa de chile de arbol.

The pizza is one generous size, with crust as thin as I’ve ever chomped, surely worthy of winning an award. It borders on the thickness of a tortilla or perhaps tlayuda. For this cena our eight-slicer had cheese, tomato and the usual herbs and spices, each quarter with a healthy topping of one of artichoke, black olive, mushroom and pepperoni. While it was the first appetizer to arrive, and we knew there were more entradas to follow, the four diners in our party were drawn to devour it all, without even a single, obligatory “no, you take the last piece.”

Our appetizers were rounded out with a bowl of ten or so medium-sized garlic shrimp, skewered, and an order of bruschetta of chicken liver paté, dare I say good enough to remind me of my grandmothers’ recipe from The Old Country. Watch out asiento, schmaltz is making inroads into Oaxaca.

My wife’s seafood bouillabaisse consisted of a medley of seafood and fish, juices appropriately spiced with a blend of fresh local herbs including your standard Italian selections, served in an oversized bowl. I continued with the crustacean theme, indulging in a hefty serving of fettuccini with seafood including squid, octopus, shrimp, scallop and local langostina in their shell. One of our guests ordered seared tuna over a bed of mixed exotic greens. She’d requested “rare, much less than medium,” I piped in “almost still swimming,” yet the plate arrived disappointingly overcooked, bordering on well. Without question or discussion the dish was removed, and in short order another serving, properly grilled, arrived with appropriate apology. The final entrée was one of the daily specials, rabbit with choice of penne or linguini, in a tangy tomato sauce.

Two bottles of Italian merlot having been retired, the restaurant by now almost empty, we were nevertheless still inclined to continue with just a bit more catching up with good friends. A couple of brandies and herbal teas, a tiramisu, and a coconut ice cream served in its half shell, most agreeably put the finishing touches on an evening of overall contentment.

Vieja Lira
Trattoria & Pizzeria
Pino Suárez 100
Centro, Oaxaca
Hours: 1 - 11 p.m., closed Tuesday
Tel: 516 – 1122

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, tours couples and families to the craft villages, market towns, ruins and other sights in the state’s central valleys, and is special Oaxaca consultant to documentary film production companies.

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

AZUCENA ZAPOTECA

Oaxaca restaurant review: outside of the city, along a popular touring route

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

For literally decades, Oaxacans waited for a restaurant with quality food and pleasant ambience to open along the highway traversing the villages of San Bartolo Coyotepec (black pottery), San Martín Tilcajete (alebrijes) and Santo Tomás Jalieza (cotton textiles) en route to the Friday market town of Ocotlán. Azucena Zapoteca Restaurant and Gallery opened its doors in October, 2004, and since then rarely have I made the trek to the villages without stopping by for comida. Located about 30 minutes out of Oaxaca on Highway 175 right at the entrance to San Martín Tilcajete, you can’t miss the brilliantly painted rotunda-style oasis in this otherwise culinary desert.

The operation has recently expanded into two distinct parts with the gallery, kitchen and washrooms housed in one building and the restaurant in another. Regarding the former, owners Jacobo and Maria Ángeles have gathered the works of about 15 of the best quality artisans in the region. Together with their own pieces, the gallery’s walls and ceiling are filled with splashes of striking color in glass, pottery and wooden masterpieces. At times a family member is present, painting a fanciful wooden figure with the most intricate of predominantly Zapotec designs. Ask the significance of each symbol and the process by which the paints are made from all natural, primarily vegetable products.

But we’re here mainly for the comida. After seating you either inside, or along the open air three-sided patio, friendly and attentive staff promptly come by with drinks and complimentary snacks of tostadas, salsa and guacamole. Ask for a pitcher of the agua del día, perhaps guayaba, watermelon or papaya. In an appropriately understated fashion, contemporary soft Latin music fills the air. What immediately strikes you about the menu is the number of unique plates often not brought together in a single restaurant. For this review it is in order to provide a brief summary of a previous visit’s dishes before noting this delectable sojourn. The diverse offering of tamales was flavorful and moist, yet greaseless as we can often only yearn to experience; the empanada of amarillo tasted as if made by a comadre with decades of experience preparing meals for her extended family; the salsa de huevo arrived steaming and savory; and finally, what a treat to be offered chiles en nogada when out of season without having to worry if it will be up to par. If you’ve never tried this dish, here’s the place…a poblano chili filled with a seemingly odd concoction of carefully chosen and blended spices, pork, chopped and braised fruits and vegetables, topped with a distinct sauce of walnut, cream or goat’s milk cheese, sugar and another spice mixture, garnished with pomegranate seeds. It’s a national treasure, complete with its green, red and white presentation. On a recent visit with family members from Canada, one exclaimed that this was the best dish she’d ever tasted, anywhere.

For our most recent outing we each started with sopa Benito Juarez, a light bean soup with small cubes of queso and slight hint of pork and fresh epazote, garnished with a crisp twirled tostada. As my main course I chose tinga, rolled into three large tacos, placed over a bean purée and heavily topped with shredded lettuce and crumbled queso. Tinga is a mix of shredded pork, tomato and onion, nicely seasoned without any significant “heat.” A friend ordered pipian, chicken pieces arriving stew-like in a large bowl with a green sauce of miltomate and white beans, the predominant flavor and texture coming from the roasted, ground squash seeds. Another guest opted for the zegueza, which arrived piping hot. With beef as the main ingredient, it is made with chili guajillo in a tomato based sauce with subtle clove essence. Its crunch and body is created from coarsely ground corn kernels. By the time we had finished what was left of these splendid sauces (with the help of tortillas to wipe our bowls clean), all there was left to do was relax and listen to the music while sipping on café de olla and sharing a serving of plantain with cream.

Two tips:

1) If you opt for comida, consider planning your day so you arrive after having visited most of your selected stopovers so you don’t feel compelled to rush…it would be a waste to not get the most out of this dual sensory experience;
2) Since dishes are made fresh and may take some time to prepare, to help balance the odds that each entrée will arrive fairly close in time to one another, ask your waiter to do his best to bring all the main courses together.

NOTES:
• 8am to 7 pm daily
• Km 23.5 Puerto Ángel, San Martín Tilcajete
• Tel: 510-7884
• Price: 70 – 100 pesos

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 is a food critic, writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca and tours couples and families to the villages, ruins and other sites in the central valleys of Oaxaca.

Posted by titosarah 14:09 Archived in Mexico Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

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