Oaxacan is the Holy Grail of Mexican food. Based on seven legendary moles in shades of red, green, yellow, and black, the cuisine deftly wields combinations of fresh and dried chiles to produce piquant and earthy flavors. Though New York is blessed with Pueblan, Tex-Mex, and Sino-Mex eateries, and cursed with upscale places that offer forgettable versions of regional Mexican cooking, we have no Oaxacan. Thus I found myself on the frozen banks of the Raritan River one day last winter undertaking a pilgrimage to New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Restaurant Oaxaqueño #2 is an electric blue one-story shotgun in a slightly ramshackle neighborhood of two-story frame houses. One wall displays a mural of a rodeo, as a Guadeloupe Virgin engulfed in flames looks on. Three conflicting menus pose a challenge to the novitiate: the printed version, a photocopied hand-scrawl inside that, and broadsheets listing specials plastered over most of one wall. Collectively, these offer nearly every Mexican dish you’ve ever heard of, and some Cuban and American ones as well. You’ll have to scratch a little for the Oaxacan, but it’s there.
The black mole one-ups mole poblano—smoother, darker, richer, with a bitter edge that comes from roasting chiles to near incineration, while de-emphasizing chocolate. It comes on mole oaxaqueño con pollo ($6.95), offering a modest quantity of chicken in a plate nearly overflowing with inky sauce, forcing you to dip repeatedly into the reservoir of warm tortillas. The accompanying black beans, laced with epazote and garlic, are especially good, as is the clumpy yellow rice. A perfect side dish is nopales azada ($2.50). Instead of canned cactus, you get three fresh paddles cut into wide strips still attached at the bottom like big hands. Both sides nicely charred and with a slimy quality like okra, it also comes as a side dish when you order the excellent roast quail (godorniz azada, $6.50). Note that nearly all main dishes are sided with grilled green onions, white bulbs attached, instead of the usual red radishes.
Another Oaxacan oddity is tlayuda, a pizza sumptuously crowding meat, cheese, salad, black beans, and peppers on a giant crispy corn tortilla made on the premises. Ask for the cecina version, showcasing salty strips of air-dried beef. You won’t get one of these from Domino’s. Also tasty is chuletas en huajilo, three gnarled pork chops that refuse to lie down in their brilliant red mole. A corona of glistening lard advances slightly beyond the edge of the sauce. Though “carnitas” often refers to fried pork tidbits, here you sometimes get big floppy pieces of pork skin in yellow mole. Dotted with pieces of cactus, the subtle sauce is more orange than yellow, and has a subtle undertaste of cumin.
Further visits are now just a blur of great Mexican food. I’m still kicking myself for not bringing along a Spanish dictionary to translate unfamiliar words. It became a ritual to pull one down from the shelf as I pored over the photocopied specials menu to discover what we’d missed. Saddest of all was “tacos de chapulin.” Imagine my distress on finding out we’d lost a chance to crunch grasshopper tacos.