Casa Oaxaca 2

DSC_7537.jpgA few months ago, I paid a visit to a modern Mexican restaurant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC to sample their vegan menu (see blog).  I was impressed by their modern approach to the presentation and rendition of some classic Mexican dishes like Quesadillas, Chile Relleno, and the Cactus salad, Nopalito.  While I was waiting for the meatless offerings to arrive at my table, I had a chance to peruse the other dishes that would delight the die-hard carnivore.  I had been anticipating my next visit during the four-month wait, thinking about some of the interesting sounding dishes that looked familiar and some new to my palate.

With an online offer coupon in hand (food blogging can make quite a dent to the pocketbook, thus I take “any means necessary” to make such hobby more economical), I showed up at Casa Oaxaca to meet a new online friend.  Unfortunately, unlike my previous visit, the upstairs was not available to customers, thus I had no choice but to find the brightest lit table in the rather cavernous basement floor.  Even under such lighting, it was a real challenge taking some decent photos with the low-level lighting which the staff were tempted to dim even further as the night progressed.  Notwithstanding such challenges, my friend and I were quite excited about tasting the offerings.


While we were perusing the menu, we were regaled with a complimentary amuse-bouche.  Small discs of freshly made tortilla were covered with some cooked beans and topped with cheese.  The tortilla tasted home-made and slightly musky from the dried corn and lime powder.  The beans were smooth and quite mild in flavor with the cheese adding a slight richness without overpowering its partners.  A mild-tasting but nice start to the meal.


Our first order was Kekas since my dining mate was not too keen on the Grasshopper Cheese Fondue (yes, crunchy Chapulines is a common staple South of the Border).  The plate came with a trio of quesadillas made with non-GMO (non-genetically modified organics) pink-hued tortillas.  The one stuffed with fresh corn and huitlacoche had the sweetness of the former starch and the mustiness of the latter dark corn fungus, which is also another exotic staple in Mexican cuisine.  The other stuffed with cheese, onions, and squash blossoms was a mild tasting and slightly sweet from the flower petals and onions, which made it quite distinct in its meek way.  The boldest quesadilla was the Pork Carnitas stuffing which was thinly shredded pork with a rich savory sauce that stood out the most with its savoriness and bolder flavors.  The side of Crema, light Mexican sour cream, added an additional unctuousness to these bites.  This was a good appetizer with the quality noticeable in the cooking and the ingredients themselves.


The next course was a trio of Tacos de Cordero.  It is basically soft tacos that envelop a mound of barbecued lamb meat.  The meat was fork-tender and very tasty, although a bit too salty for my taste.  The sauce had a hint of dry “wood” spices like cumin and cinnamon.  The usual choice meat for a barbacoa is goat, but in this case lamb is used, which exuded a slight gamey note to the bite.  The pickled red onions was the acidic relief needed for this rich dish and to balance the lamb flavor.  The side of corn salad was delightful with its summer sweetness that was tempered by a hint of lime juice and cilantro.  The refried beans were smooth and slightly smokey, which made them quite irresistible.  The Mexican Rice was well-made but nothing extraordinary.  If weren’t for the heavy hand in the salt, this would have made the perfect taco dish.


For our entrées, we chose a couple of dishes that represented authentic Mexican cuisine. The first was Tres Moles.  It was a visually stunning dish with pieces of cooked chicken that were dressed with the traditional sauce of Oaxaca, Mole.  I was curious to try this dish since I was only familiar with one type of mole sauce, Mole Poblano, which is made from a long list of dried chilies, nuts, and cacao.  This restaurant’s version was probably one of the best I have had with some smokiness from the dried roasted chilies, slightly nutty, and the cacao added a dark rich note to the sauce – I was literally lapping up every drop of it from the plate.  The green mole was made from tomatillos and garlic, and it was slightly acidic from the gooseberry relative.  The red mole was quite piquant from the use of more searing chilies and it was the least favorite of mine.  But this dish was a delicious study of contrast and it highlights the sophistication of this Pre-Columbian cuisine.  This dish is a definite must-order at this restaurant and a tasty introduction to authentic Mexican cuisine.

DSC_0742.jpgThe final entrée was Pato al Mole.  Pieces of organic duck thigh are paired with a mole sauce made with figs.  I was really anticipating the arrival of this dish judging by the name itself.  However, the dish was a slight let down since the duck was a bit over-cooked and a bit too salty, and the sauce did not have any pronounced discernible fruity fig flavor but a slightly sweeter version of the Mole Poblano in the above dish.  I appreciate the restaurant’s effort to take the traditional flavors to a more modern direction with the use of duck as the protein and figs as part of the mole sauce.  However, I feel that it needs a bit of fine-tuning and it would be a great success.

DSC_0747.jpgFor dessert, we decided to try something that was typically Latin with a Mexican flair – Flan de Chocolate.  It was basically a flan custard made with chocolate/coco and drizzled with some tequila.  However, I found the flan a bit too dense and lacking the smooth creamy consistency which comes from as the result of condensed milk and the right proportions of ingredients to lighten it up.  Furthermore, the chocolate flavor in the flan was produced from the use of coco powder and chocolate syrup which did not add much depth or richness.  The pool of tequila did not do much to the dish and I felt it was not necessary.  What a shame.  Again, this dish needs fine tuning and it could be stellar. Unfortunately, it was ho-hum like the vegan version of Pastel de Tres Leches that I had on my last visit.

DSC_0754.jpgAs part of the coupon offer, the final piece de resistance was a trio flight of different Mezcals, akin to tequila.  Who would refuse such a treat, unless you are a serious teetotaler.  Not familiar with the different types of this Mexican liquor, I was curious to discover something new.  It is made from the Maguey which is a type of agave plant found in Oaxaca, closely related to the Blue Agave used to make tequila.  The first offering was the plain mezcal.  We were instructed to drink with a salt made with Chapulines (grasshopper – finally I got to taste it!) and a squeeze of sweet orange.  I must say that this was a better version of Tequila Shots with the smoother Mexcal, the slightly smoky salt, and the sweet orange slice that did not produce that puckered face effect like with tequila.  The second flight was a smoked version of the first clear mezcal – it was a bit too smokey for me although it is the most common version.  The final version tasted like the coffee liquor, Kahlua, and my dinner mate enjoyed it much like a dessert wine.  This was a great ending to the meal, which left us slightly buzzed but not inebriated due to the quantity of food we had consumed.

DSC_7586.jpgJust like my first trip to Casa Oaxaca to try its vegan menu, there were more highlights in this time’s tasting than the disappointments.  The Kekas Quesadillas were flavorful with the different meat and vegetable stuffing especially the Pork Carnitas and Huitlacoche fungus.  The Lamb Tacos were fork-tender and well-seasoned despite the slight over-salting.  The Tres Moles was perhaps the best dish we tried and this restaurant’s version did some justice to this national dish with the complex sauces.  The trio flight of mezcal shots was the perfect ending, a much smoother version than the back-throat-burning tequila.  Casa Oaxaca is worth visiting to savor well-made authentic Mexican dishes that will dispel one’s prejudices or preconceived notions of this cuisine, and it will impress any diner with the restaurant’s familiar and exotic offerings.

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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.


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.


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.


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.

Vegan QuesadillasVegan Quesadillas

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.

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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