Don’t expect to find any Oaxacan food here. The name? A total sham!
Lauren S. asks: Where can I get Oaxacan food in New York City?
Dear Lauren: This question always makes me sad. In brief, there is no Oaxacan food in Gotham. I’m not really sure why, since it would be easy enough for someone to mount a restaurant serving Oaxacan food, even if they weren’t Oaxacan.
For those uninitiated to its delights, we’re talking about food that originated in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, in the far southwest of the country, bordering the Pacific Ocean. It’s a mountainous state with a huge indigenous population, mainly Mixtecs and Zapotecs, and the cooking is highly unique. Most famous are the seven moles: manchamanteles, chichilo, amarillo, rojo, verde, coloradito, and negro, in a profusion of rich earthy colors. These moles are notoriously time-consuming and difficult to make, and sometimes use hard-to-find ingredients. Grasshoppers, herbs like hoja santa and epazote, and banana leaves for wrapping tamales are also important components.
Los Angeles is filled with Oaxacan eateries, most prominently the excellent Gueleguetza chain. Sniff, sniff! Why can’t we have at least one here? Moreover, restaurateurs are quick to appropriate the name, without delivering the goods. Hey, Oaxaca Taqueria — I’ve got a bone to pick with you! How can you so audaciously appropriate the name, and then not serve a single dish from Oaxaca? Ditto Oaxaca in Midtown, which is basically just a gussied-up burrito joint. Shame on you! Do you think New Yorkers are estúpido?
Sorry for that aside, Lauren, but when it comes to the incredibly delicious and fascinating food of Oaxaca — probably the best food in Mexico — our city comes up short. That said, you can sometimes get tantalizing glimpses of the cuisine. Any Pueblan bodega-café will offer a mole poblano — that’s the chocolate mole — over enchiladas or boiled chicken, usually made by a Pueblan immigrant in her kitchen and distributed to the eating establishments in her neighborhood. Tulcingo del Valle (665 Tenth Avenue, 212-262-5510) is one such place. This mole is similar to Oaxacan mole negro (“black mole”), though the Oaxcan model tastes toastier and less chocolaty and fruity to me.
Additionally, if you look around transportation terminals such as the Port Authority and the combined subway/bus station in Jackson Heights, or along Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, you can often find women selling homemade tamales from shopping carts, and one of their selections is usually called a Oaxacan tamale. Though made by Pueblans, and not wrapped in banana leaves, these mole-laced tamales at least give some impression of the richness of Oaxacan food.
If you go to some of the city’s upscale and ambitious Mexican restos, you can find the odd Oaxcan dish here and there on the menu. Rosa Mexicano (61 Columbus Avenue, 212-977-7700) serves a decent version of the bright red-yellow mole manchamanteles (“tablecloth stainer”). Unfortunately, it’s ladled over salmon fillet. Hecho en Dumbo (354 Bowery, 212-937-424) offers a version over pork. I haven’t tried it yet, but the chances it will be either good or authentic are relatively remote.
Park Slope restaurant Chiles & Chocolate (54 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-230-770) lays claim to being an actual Oaxacan restaurant, but it’s mainly a bluff. Nevertheless, you can get a mole negro and a mole coloradito there, which is at least something. Both pale in comparison to the originals. On the Lower East Side, newcomer Casa Mezcal (86 Orchard Street, 212-777-2600) proffers a tlayuda, the “pizza” of Oaxaca. Haven’t tried it yet, but am heading down there soon to do so.
Thanks for your question, Lauren!