Restaurante Oaxaca's sweet mole 

click to enlarge Platano Frito ($3.95). Photo by Mark Lee
  • Platano Frito ($3.95). Photo by Mark Lee

There are no chapulines (fried grasshoppers) on the menu. But Restaurante Oaxaca — formerly housed inside the international grocery store Saraga, and now tucked among the BBQ and fried chicken joints on MLK Jr. Dr. — is rustic in a thrilling way.

The first clue? Hand-hewn tortilla chips. These quartered fried chips were recently a soft corn tortilla, liberally salted and served with a fluid, spring-green salsa designed to clean one's reloj [clock].

Guacamole got high marks from my Texan friend, who praised its room temperature, its chunkiness and the inclusion of queso crumbs. Such chips and guac alone might have made a satisfying snack, balanced by a refreshing glass of aqua fresca ($2.50) in my chosen flavor of pepino (cucumber).

But I really came for the mole, as Oaxaca is known as the land of seven moles. In Aztec times, this chocolatey, nutty, sublime sauce that takes meat to new heights was made for royalty only. Even now, my friend recounted, his grandmother turns mole-making into a three-day ritual — a labor intensive artisanal act and occasion for social bonding.

On my first visit to Restaurante Oaxaca, on a Tuesday night, the mole supply had run dry. On a return visit, I was luckier. An order of Mole Oaxaqueno ($8.95) yielded three pieces of dark meat chicken coated in a generous cup of the satiny dark sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. This mole was sweeter than expected, but with a fine slow burn.

The best deal at Oaxaca has to be the Tamales Oaxaquenos. For $5, you get a pork tamal wrapped in a plantain leaf, a chicken tamal wrapped in a corn husk and un elote, a sweet corncake that's typically a breakfast food. I love tamales because a real one can only be formed by the expert cook's hand; Oaxaca's are done with love and deft. The pork tamal had a touch of salsa verde within; the chicken one had a toothier masa envelope. Next time I will take my tamale for a street food test drive on the spanking-new sidewalks along MLK.

My husband's fajitas ($8.95) came with beef, chorizo, and, notably, tomatoes that tasted chile-roasted. The fajitas were accompanied by more cushiony hand-rolled corn tortillas.

The meal ended with Platano Frito ($3.95). These sauteed plantains came drizzled with two sauces — one sweet like condensed milk and one cheesy. Here's a dish that works as appetizer, snack or dessert.

Restaurante Oaxaca is a bit of a chameleon. On the second visit I was less certain that our tortilla chips were homemade. Also on the second visit, we were served a red salsa in addition to the green. First visit, no mole; next visit, yes.

No matter. Corporate consistency is not the reason you go to a hole-in-the-wall with just 40 seats, telenovela actors emoting from the TV and a clientele of all colors. If it's authenticity you seek, slide over to Oaxaca.



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