Vegan Mexican – Casa Oaxaca

DSC_7519.jpgOK, I hear you loud and clear, and I get it – at least, from some of you. After posting Elevation Burger in the last blog (see blog) and attempting to balance my postings with those on establishments offering a scant number of vegetarian and vegan dishes, a couple of Facebook friends quickly shot back comments requesting me to write on more eateries that focused on a meatless and vegan lifestyle. Furthermore, a fellow Buddhist on my mass email list also responded by asking herself to be removed from my notices as she stated that her diet had “changed”, which I was not sure exactly what she was alluding to, perhaps a reaction to the photos of meat dishes that could have been “offending” her sensibilities. I guess for some, Meat Means Murder!

Being a practising Buddhist, I frequently try to aspire towards the ideal of following a vegetarian diet, albeit a mere recommendation and not a permanent personal practice as of yet (the Buddhist thinking is that strict rules/commandments will only create some form of issues around such restrictions or make one even develop a rebellious attitude). So, when an online offer popped up on my computer for a Mexican eatery that offered both separate meat and vegan menus, I bought both coupons and decided to explore their meatless selections first. In addition to the lack of a vegetarian/vegan restaurant on my site, I decided to kill two birds with one stone (oops, that doesn’t sound very Buddhist) by penning my first blog on a Latin American establishment.

DSC_7583.jpgCasa Oaxaca touts itself as a Modern Mexican Restaurant, located in the busy DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan where the streets are literally jam-packed with different eateries that offer a wide variety to entice the roaming palate. This area went through what I called the “Adams Morgan effect” in which ethnic eateries managed to keep the level of authenticity in their kitchen only for a short moment before losing its identity due to the hiring of non-native cheap labor. Like everything in life subject to the process of natural selection (or customer selection, in this case), the fittest restaurants survived and they continue to offer high-quality cooking, as in La Churreria de Madrid (see blog) around the corner. Perusing Casa Oaxaca’s website, I was looking forward to savoring and writing about the vegan dishes offered by this Mexican locale.

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DSC_7540.jpgThe restaurant is divided into two floors, and on my visit, I had to enter through the bottom floor into the rather cavernous space. Knowing that such dark space would not produce flattering photos for the blog, I requested permission to eat in the upper part which was still closed. The manager, Joana, was gracious enough to open up the upper floor for my needs. While waiting for the manager to invite me up, I ordered a typical Mexican drink that I am rather fond of, Horchata. This version is made with almonds, rice, and rice milk (not the usual with cow’s milk), which make it a vegan thirst quencher. It was rather sweet for me on the first few sips, but the diluting ice cubes brought it to the correct level after a few minutes. The pieces of almonds and a hit of cinnamon added the right notes to this rice milk concoction. A satisfying slurp, indeed.

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For the opener, I decided on the Timbal de Nopal. It consists of layers of fresh tomato, grilled cactus, and vegan cheese, slathered with some Pico de Gallo. The round of cactus was a bit too crunchy despite the grilling and a bit too smoky from the charring – maybe a short stay in boiling water would make it more fork tender. The fresh salsa packed some heat punch (perhaps from chile serrano), coupled by the chile ancho oil pool around the plate. Even for this chile aficionado, it was borderline overwhelming. Unfortunately, the vegan cheese was lost in the dish due to the piquancy and the overall acidity. This definitely was an appetite opener but I was hoping for a bit more subtlety.

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My first main course was a Mexican classic, Chiles Rellenos. A roasted Poblano pepper is stuffed with pieces of zucchini, carrots, grilled corn, spinach, soy meat, and pumpkin seeds. This concoction was muy delicioso as the various elements were well-balanced by the sweet vegetables and the mild vegan protein, which I would have preferred it a bit more seared (my meat-loving instincts crying out here). The slightly sweet and spicy green pepper is perfected complemented by a delectable orange tomato sauce that is moderately spiked by chile guajillo. The accompanying refried black beans was perfectly executed with enough flavor even without the customary lard as its base. The topping of vegan cheese on both beans and roasted chile even had the distinctive parmesan-like aroma that one can get from the non-vegan version, which lent some further richness and complexity to both items. The side of Mexican rice was fluffy and equally flavorful. I truly enjoyed this dish especially that perfect tomato sauce that made this dish sing, of which I lapped every drop on the plate.

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For the second main, I ordered a trio of bites called Quesadillas Tricolor. This really colorful dish is made with pastel-hued Non Genetically Modified (Non GMO) soft tacos stuffed with squash blossoms, mushroom cooked in a guajillo salsa, and corn cooked with the exotic corn fungus, huitlacoche. I enjoyed the subtlety of the mild squash blossoms, the meatiness of the sautéed mushrooms, and the interesting note brought by the slightly sour and musty corn fungus on the yellow corn kernels. But what tied the elements together was the very tasty vegan almond cheese whose savoriness blew my taste buds away especially for not being dairy – I could not get enough of this stringy “creamy” cheese that made these some mean and fulfilling quesadillas. The ring of chile ancho oil provided the necessary heat without overwhelming or complicating the flavors.
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Vegan Tres Leches CakeTo end the meal, I wanted to order a dessert made with papaya, an exotic fruit that I grew up on in the tropics. Unfortunately, the kitchen was out of it and I elected for the Pastel Tres Leches. A dairy-free cupcake has been soaked in coconut milk served on a sauce of coconut milk and berry sauce, topped by non toasted coconut flakes. This dessert was decent but it lacked the unctuousness of the regular version made with milk, condensed milk, and rich whip cream – I guess the original flavors of some desserts cannot be adequately substituted by vegan ingredients. However, my grandmother did make some heavenly vegan desserts with this tropical nut and its creamy milk, so it is possible to come up with a good alternative. Perhaps the papaya dessert or the mango sorbet will be my selection on the next visit.

Casa Oaxaca stands out among the plethora of Mexican-style and Tex-Mex eateries that tend to dilute the integrity of this rich cuisine. What this establishment brings to the table is a level of sophisticated cooking while recognizing the authentic tradition that shape the unique flavors and ingredients, exemplified by the charred cactus paddle, the pairing of grilled poblano pepper and the perfectly made tomato-guajillo sauce, and the satisfying corn kernels and corn fungus quesadilla stuffing along with that heavenly tasting almond cheese. If the vegan offerings at this establishment look and taste this good, I’m looking forward to my next trip to try out the non-vegan dishes. I get a feeling that I will not be disappointed and will leave with a big smile and satisfecho.

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