Huong Viet

Huong VietThis must be some bad economic times that we are going through.  Uncertainty seems to hover over the housing market, the stock market, the job market, a looming sequestration, and undoubtedly the restaurant business.  More than a handful of restaurants that I have reviewed have folded up since I started a year ago.  To make matters worse, both Vietnamese restaurants on my blog have shut their doors, one after nearly 15 years of business, and the other just a mere 8 months.  As you may have read about my elusive search for a good Vietnamese eatery near me and in DC, this series of events was quite a blow.

With such daunting news in  mind, I approached my trusty Vietnamese barber and asked her for a reliable recommendation.  She pointed me to Eden Center, in the Seven Corners neighborhood of Fairfax, VA, where there is a confluence of Vietnamese business that populate that rather expansive plaza.  This was one place that I used to visit quite often to savor some good cooking when the Four Sisters Restaurant ran their business there before moving further out to the boondocks.   After their move, there was little cause to visit that area except when the occasional taste for steamed tofu with ginger syrup propelled me to drive the nearly 30 miles to terra incognito, as it seems that way to me.   But with a strong reference in mind, I coraled my dinner group on the eve of the Lunar New Year, or Tết in Vietnamese, and paid a visit to Huong Viet , a small eatery that has survived all these years since my visit there nearly 20 years ago.

Vietnamese Summer Rolls

Walking into the establishment, the decor and the set up are not as plush or creative as most modern restaurants, and the regularly spaced long and short tables do bring to mind a nice clean cafeteria.  After a short wait outside in the cold, we were shown to our long table that accommodated my party of five.   Any feeling of doubt or hesitancy was immediately erased by a sense of assurance brought about by the busyness of the restaurant and the number of Vietnamese-speaking customers in the place. With that thought in mind, I plunged into the menu and quickly ordered some common appetizers.  The Summer Rolls came with soft rice crepe paper wrapped around a filling of perfectly cooked moist rice vermicelli noodles, fresh sweet shrimp, mild roast pork, crisp lettuce, fragrant mint leaves, and finished with a long strand of pungent Asian chive.  But what tied all these disparate elements together was the dipping sauce.  This restaurant’s version had only a bare hint of hoisin unlike other versions that overwhelms the palate with its flavor.  Mixed in it was a peanut sauce that made it rich and nutty, and its unique balance pointed towards it being house-made rather than store-bought.  This was a good fresh bite.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls/Cha GioWe also ordered the counterpart to the above – Fried Spring Roll or CHẢ GIÒ.  When it arrived at the table, I noticed a few variations from the norms commonly found in other places.  First, the large bubbles on the fried skin indicated that it was made in a traditional fashion with Vietnamese rice crepe paper and not with Chinese spring roll sheets that are commonly used these days.  The second was that it was cut into two before it was deep-fried, which intrigued me even further.   Sheer hunger or delectable food can produce a certain suspension of analysis of thought as I honestly don’t recall much from this dish.  All I remember was that the stuffing tasted very moist and savory encased by a crispy shell, and these bites disappeared quickly among my friends who snatched them up while piping hot.  The side sweet and salty fish sauce was adequate but not as memorable as the expensive elixir served in the defunct Green Papaya restaurant.   However, this dish was worth a moment of relapse during dinner.

Young Lotus Root Salad

Another common appetizer found in this Southeast Asian cuisine is Young Lotus Root Salad.  Strands of cooked lotus roots have been mixed with pieces of pork and whole shrimp, lightly seasoned by the ubiquitous sweet and salty fish sauce.  Wow, I could barely get a bite of this because it was ferociously attacked by my companions, and deservedly so.  The pieces of lotus were perfectly cooked while maintaining its characteristic light crunch along with its savoriness developed from being marinated.  The sweet shrimp and moist pork provided the unctuous notes to the mild root, while the crushed peanuts and fried shallot rings added the nuttiness and dark flavors to the clean mild tasting salad.  The rounds of addictive shrimp crackers provided some textural interest as well as serving as the perfect scoopers for this melange.  This was definitely a hit for all of us and we should have ordered another serving of it.

Riceflour Pancake/Banh Xeo

For our main courses, we ordered a quartet of dishes.  The first was a classic Vietnamese dish found in any reputable restaurant – Bánh Xèo.  This stuffed crepe dish literally means “sizzling cake” consisting of a rice flour crepe stuffed with pieces of pork, cooked shrimp and a heaping of cooked bean sprouts.  The crepe had a hint of coconut milk and it was quite crispy, however, not rich or crispy enough for my taste, compared to the fabulous version in The Green Papaya.  Like most versions, the crepe is underseasoned for it is the sweet and salty fish sauce that imparts the necessary seasoning to this very mild dish.  Once my companions figured how to attack the dish, they were enjoying every bite of it.  But I could not help but reminiscence the rich delectable version of the aforementioned closed restaurant.

Shakey Beef

While waiting outside, an acquaintance of one of my dining companions recommended that we order Shakey Beef.  The name was odd enough for me and I had never come across a dish with such name.  The order arrived with pieces of cubed beef along with some onion and green pepper squares, plain and assuming.  The first bite revealed a personality beyond its unassuming looks.  The beef was tossed and seared on high heat in the wok, judging by pieces of caramelized bits, while maintaining a tender medium-rare inside.  Surprisingly, every bite tasted well seasoned and very savory from what tastes like soy sauce, bits of garlic, and a hint of sugar that brought the flavors to another level.   This was a truly successful dish for all of the diners and I enjoyed every beefy bite.

Shrimp with VegetablesTo bring some balance to the meat dishes, we ordered Shrimp with Vegetables.  Pieces of celery, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, and baby corn are paired with pieces of large shrimp in this dish.  The sweet tender shrimp made the perfect foil to the pieces of sweet al dente pieces of vegetables, while the mushroom adds some earthiness and the baby corn some young sweetness.  What brought all the elements together was the rather rich sauce packed with garlic pieces flavored with oyster sauce and thickened with corn starch.  Although it was a rather light dish, the savory sauce made it seem richer, and it was worth ordering this vegetable seafood dish.  Another hit among my dining group.

Caramelized Lemongrass Chicken

No visit to taste this Southeast Asian cuisine should have a lemongrass dish amiss from the dining table, and we honed on Caramelized Lemongrass Chicken.  The plate arrived with chucks of chicken thigh cooked with large pieces of sweet yellow onions, swimming in a shallow pool of brown sauce.  What truly made this two-ingredient dish delectable and successful was the sauce that was packed with the citrusy lemongrass paired with the seafood salty fish sauce with a tinge of sweetness from the caramel that rounded off the flavors. The pieces of chicken thigh was not the mild breast version so as to stand up to the punchy sauce while adding the necessary body along with the sweet and pungent onion.  Even when the morsels were gone, I was lapping up every drop of sauce with bits of rice as I could not get enough of the sauce that transported me to Indochina.  Another must order here for sure!

Vietnamese Drink Dessert

Despite feeling content with the above dishes, I was curious about the unique Vietnamese sweet servings.  There was not much in terms of solid desserts with the exception of Caramel Flan but the menus listed a list of sweet drinks with bits of “stuff” that are commonly eaten by the locals.  My glass came with a concoction of whole red beans, sweet corn, crushed peanuts, and bits of green agar-agar jelly.  The sweetening agent was a syrup consisting of a mixture of brown sugar and rich coconut milk.  Upon mixing the various elements, things did not look very appetizing at first, but with the first mouthful, it was a revelation of flavors and textures.  Every element spoke for itself: nuttiness from the peanuts, sweetness from the corn, starchiness from the red beans, molasses sweetness from the brown sugar, and vegetal creaminess from the coconut milk.  The green jelly did not add any flavor at all but a jellybean-like texture consistency to the bite, which a couple of my friends found a bit disconcerting – LOL.  Before I knew it, most of my dining companions were partaking in this sweet dish, and we finished it con mucho gusto.

Huong VietComing back to Huong Viet for me was like the return of the prodigal son.   When in doubt, do what the Romans do, or as in this case, what the Vietnamese do.  Thanks to my barber’s infallible suggestion, I’m glad to have made the long trek to Eden Center to taste what has always been there all these years – proper delectable Vietnamese dishes that wowed my dining group even days after our visit.  Never mind the inattentive service at times and the bare ambience.  But what makes up for the shortcomings is the main reason to haul oneself there – the impressive dishes.  Note to diner – they only accept cash but we walked out of there with barely with a dent made since it was around $20/person.   With such good cooking and low prices, I would easily do the 30-mile drive.

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Woodlands

IMG048.jpgThe Lunar New Year has arrived already and as an annual custom, I would put up a fairly much-to-do about this occasion, especially given the fact that it is The Year of the Snake, my zodiac year.  Such cause for celebration has propelled me to recreate some dishes that reflect my background and the customs that I grew up with during this festivity.  In pursuit for some difficult-to-find ingredients for the Nyonya dishes that I’m about to cook this weekend, I had to visit some Indian stores in the heart of immigrant city, Langley Park, MD, in search of fresh curry leaves and dried red chilies.

Stepping out of the hallway of a strip mall that exuded a combination whaft of heady incense, exotic dried spices, and fragrant fresh strange herbs, I was about to head to my car when I suddenly recalled that a responder to my blog of a close-by Indian restaurant, Tiffin, recommended another establishment in that plaza that was pure vegetarian.  I looked around and walked past it in the rather busy run-down strip mall before stumbling across it on my way back.  Woodlands has been around for a number of years, back when I first visited it one night in the early 90’s.  I recall that my experience that night was quite memorable but unfortunately I never went back to pay it another visit until this serendipitous encounter, hence the cellphone photos unlike those from the Nikon.  Standing at the door, the restaurant had just opened its door for customers, and after a quick perusal of the lunch buffet line, I quickly took a seat in the half empty space.

When a buffet line is being served, there is no time for waiting and I went straight to it.  The starter was the Rasam Sambar which is a soup consisting of chunks of squash swimming in a light sour broth made spicy with dried chili and fragrant from curry leaves.  The buffet line offers two version, one with whole yellow lentils, and the other with pureed lentils that gives it a thicker consistency.  I enjoyed the biting spiciness along with the tasty bits of vegetable along with the lentils, which I preferred whole since this version’s broth was lighter for me – this hot sip always sets the right tone for me.

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When approaching the buffet line, you are assaulted by a humongous circular flat cast-iron pan serving the dish called Pav Baiji .  In the middle of the flatpan is a mound of potato curry surrounded by a ring of bits of raw cabbage and onion, followed by an outer ring of slices of baked bread loaf. I was not sure how to eat this dish since it was very novel to me, but upon research online, it is a typical lunch fare in Mumbai that has been made lighter for the back-breaking worker who has to return to menial labor after lunch.  I appreciated the authenticity of this dish and found the combination of the raw bites of vegetable complementary to the mild potato curry.  I did not touch the bread since I wanted to make room for the other good stuff.

IMG040.jpgA typical South Indian vegetarian fare is Masala Dosa which is rice flour pancake with a stuffing in the middle.  This restaurant’s version is as crispy as in others but it is not overstuffed with a heavy potato mixture.  Instead it is rather light with a thin layer in the middle.  The customary accompaniment of Coconut chutney made it more irresistible with its nuttiness punctuated with some fragrant curry leaves and spicy dried chilies.

There were many highlights from the buffet line.  Beetroot Poriyal is a combination of fine cubes of red beets cooked with fragrant cumin seeds that produced a dish devoid of the earthiness associated with this root vegetable.  Pala Paneer is a dish combining fresh firm cheese with a spinach puree.  What sets it apart from the more known Saag Paneer is that this version is not mixed with mustard green and it is not enriched with cream like the latter.  I enjoyed the smooth green puree that did not taste too bitter from the pure spinach and the cheese was mild but rather firm.  One dish that I could not get enough of was Avial, which consisted of tendli, which tasted like a chayote squash, “drumstick vegetable”, and potato that is thickened with some yogurt that provided a mild sourness which I enjoyed thoroughly.  Chickpeas are prominently featured in Indian vegetarian cuisine and one version offered here is Chana Chaat.  It is a melange of chickpeas and mashed potato seasoned with tamarind sauce, cilantro sauce, and tomato ketchup, elevating this dish beyond pure starch.  The bits of puffed vermicelli on top provided the necessary crispy texture to the mushy consistency.  It was one of my favorite dishes.

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The first serving was not enough since another plateful revealed more wonders.  Another common Indian appetizer was the first bite from this plate – Medu Wada.  These small savory lentil doughnuts were lighter than the ones I have savored, packed with some spice fragrance and a slight sourness that was complimented by the typical sauces.  The tamarind sauce was thick and dark, an indication of it being house-made with its sourness well tamed, and the cilantro sauce was flourescent creamy green replete with its herbaciousness – here we see the restaurant paying close details to the background players.  A couple of bites of the Fried Noodles dispelled any doubts of the dish’s appearance and I quite enjoyed the sweet and sour tomato-based sauce coating the delicate strands of noodles.  The Veggie Biryani was a heady rice dish spiked with whole pieces of cinnamon, cloves, and whole curry leaves.  The bits of pumpkin added the sweet element to this savory dish along with bits of rich cashew nut, which added a bit of unctousness to the mouthful.  Veggie Manchu are bits of whole vegetables that have been battered and deep-fried and lightly coated with a slightly sweet dark sauce, paying homage to its meat version, General Tso Chicken, which left me sated as if having eaten its original meat version.  A couple of servings of Chana Bandar sealed the deal for me about this restaurant’s authenticity and quality cooking.  Puffed dough shells are available for the customer to be stuffed with cooked chickpeas, further topped with fresh tomato and onion, puffed rice crispy, and moistened by a gravy or the tamarind or cilantro sauces.  I had only seen this dish on travel and culinary channels, and I was excited to finally savor this multi-flavored and textured dish – Yumm!

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Despite the level of satedness I was feeling, I could not resist having a few bites of dessert.  The first offering was Vermicelli Kheer made with  strands of fine vermicelli and tapioca pearls swimming in a pool of sweetened cooked milk.  I enjoyed a few spoonfuls of it before deciding that it was a bit too sweet for me.  Just when I thought I was eating some Halwa, a sweet carrot puree, it turned out to be Rava Kesari, a thick sweet cream of wheat orange mixture, filled with surprising chunks of sweet pineapple and almond slivers that made it difficult to put the spoon down.  Note to the diner – leave some room for these sweet dishes.

I walked out of Woodlands feeling both gastronomically satisfied and pleased that I had a chance encounter with this wonderful establishment, especially one serving authentic Southern Indian vegetarian fare.  An hour after my entrance, I passed by a long line of customers waiting for a table for Sunday lunch, hungrily anticipating the delicious offerings on the buffet line.  I walked past them noting to myself, “Why have I not been back all these years?” Now I know what I have been missing all these years.  Neither should you.

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Bistro D’oc

Bistro D'ocOn New Year’s Day, while walking down 10th St. NW near the heart of the financial district, I came across a quaint looking building, beaming like a sore thumb amidst an ocean of modern glass and steel structures.  When I noticed the large “Bistro” sign in the window, it thrilled me to know that there was a French eatery in the heart of town.  After having reviewed other French establishments in the MD suburbs (See K Town Bistro) and in the VA neighborhood of Alexandria (See Yves Bistro), I was eager to add a downtown locale to the list of restaurants of one of my favorite cuisines.

Located across the street from the infamous Ford’s Theater in which President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Bistro D’oc sits in a wooden and brick structure dating back to the 1830’s.  Walking through its doors you are immediately assaulted by the rich orange walls and deep ocean blue trimmings that evoke the colors of the Mediterranean.  This establishment celebrates the traditions and regional cuisine of Languedoc, hence the restaurant’s name, serving dishes commonly found in that southwest French province that borders Spain and the Mediterranean.  In addition to the bright color scheme, you are immediately transported to a different ambience that is a prelude of what to expect from a dining experience enhanced by the surrounding wooden structure, the old wall sconces, and the side furniture that evoke a yesteryear.

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DSC_1720.jpgOn my first visit, I invited my BFF to join me for dinner to celebrate my birthday.  From the moment of taking a seat, the attention to details are noticeable by the diner.  A complementary serving of bread and butter sets itself apart from the usual humdrum.  Here we have a large slab of fresh butter that is a far cry from the chintzy prepackaged little aluminium foil squares.  The French bread is truly veritable in quality with the hard outer crust covering an airy yet hearty flavorful inside.  On another visit, the glass of Burgundy that came as part of the $25 Pre/Post-Theater dinner was decent for a house wine that was low in tannin and rather full in body.  It is the attention to these minor details that sets the right mood for the rest of the meal.

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DSC_1305.jpgFor the appetizer on this occasion, I honed in on a vegetarian dish listed as a special, Eggplant Paté.  It arrived in a beautiful Le Creuset mini pot (I looked at its bottom) along with a few home-made croutons.  Digging into the pot, I was incredulous at the dish that consisted of  just roasted eggplant due to the rich flavors that permeated each mouthful.  Smooth bits of roasted eggplant are held in suspension by a rich puree that has been scented by some woodsy-minty thyme that added the note of interest.  Bits of cooked tomato contributed some slight sweetness to the whole dish.  The croutons were thin enough yet crusty to support a mound of this deliciousness but they quickly ran out before I reached the bottom of the pot – thank goodness for the slices of that tasty baguette.  This was truly a wonderfully delicious vegetarian paté, if there were one.

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Since my BFF was on his drastic diet for his upcoming Caribbean cruise, he opted for the Salad Languedoc.  The plate arrived with a mound of mixed greens piled on, topped with confit chicken gizzard, surrounded by a couple of paper-thin slices of Bayonne ham, with a truffle of peppered chicken liver pate, and finished with a light dressing of a decent tangy vinaigrette.  BFF and I were amazed at the tender bits of gizzard whose flavor was intensified by the confit (cooked in fat), the liver paté truffle smooth, rich, and pungent from the pepper, and the paper-thin ham tasted aged and musty from the barn that it was cured in, which is a good thing in this instance.  Here, we see in this dish the roots of Modern French cuisine stemming from country fare that are well done and sensitive to quality ingredients – hearty yet sublime.

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DSC_1319.jpgFor my main course (let’s not confuse it with the American misuse of the word entrée) I decided to order something that I rarely come across in the menu of most French establishments – Cassoulet Languedoc.  This hearty stew consists of French white haricot beans that have been stewed in a rich sauce and enriched by healthy chunks of duck confit (cooked in duck fat), lamb, pork, and Toulouse sausage.  This is a hearty gut-sticking food that speaks of the humble origins of this unfussy dish.  The beans were cooked just right, being not too soft and maintaining its integrity without being chalky firm, while the sauce it swam in was flavored by some aromatics and a good dose of woodsy thyme.  The various pieces of meat lent their own distinctive flavors to this dish from the rich duck confit, to the slightly gamey lamb, the pieces of porcine delight, and the flavorful and slightly fatty sausage.  The earthen bowl that the dish was served in added to the character of the dish that took this diner to a remote French farm where this stew would often be cooked.   In addition to my fawning over the unctousness of this bean dish, I admired the restaurant’s offering this time-consuming dish that many places would avoid serving.  This is classic Languedoc fare from the Southwest France, and with this dish this restaurant delivers.

DSC_1321.jpgAs a treat for my birthday on my first visit, I decided to indulge in the dessert special for that day.  It was offering an array of macaroons, and my order consisted of a couple made from coffee.  These were two perfectly round crispy yet crumbly discs made from merengue flavored with some coffee essence, stuffed with a creamy filling again flavored with the same heady coffee essence and with some nutty crushed hazelnut bits mixed in.  They were the perfect sweet bites to end the meal after having sated myself with the above rich dishes.  Small, sweet, and satisfying.

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As part of the Pre/Post-theater $25 three-course deal, I decided to start my meal with a Duck Rillette Paté.  A small bowl of this rich meat paste came served with a couple of the house-made croutons.  Pieces of shredded duck confit meat have been congealed with duck fat and heavily seasoned with black pepper.  The pate was smooth and quite meaty with a good dose of pepper bite in each bite.  The croutons were not enough to cover the amount of paté but the day was saved by the French bread slices.  However, I got a bit bored by the rich dish as the amount was rather generous, and the addition of some herbs or the heady truffle would have made it more interesting to my palate.  But I appreciated the rusticity in this version of pate which is the hallmark of this regional French cuisine.

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For my second course, I order Salmon in a Butter Red Pepper Sauce.  The moderate-size piece of salmon arrived napéd with a butter sauce studded with bits of sweet red and green peppers.  The piece of fish was moist, flaky, and perfectly cooked from having some time in the oven, complemented by a surprisingly light buerre blanc that added a richness to the salmon.  The chiffonade of fresh basil added a surprising anise flavor to the sauce and interesting touch to the dish.  The accompanying white basmati rice was well cooked with a tinge of salt to elevate it beyond pure starch.  A few capers thrown in to the sauce would have made the flavors perfect, but I was very satisfied with this dish and its skilful preparation.

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To round off this set of trio, I chose the Rasberry Mousse Bavaroise as my last course.  A glass arrived filled with the egg-cream-gelatine mixture at the bottom topped by a fairly thick layer of rasberry-blueberry compote.   The creamy bottom was filled with the raspberry flavor while its airy lightness somehow managed to defy the richness of the custard.   The topping was packed with soft chunks of cooked fruit providing the sweet fruitiness that paired perfectly with its bottom counterpart.  This was the perfect finale to the three-act meal that was satisfying with the flavors, made with moderate sized portions, and they were a demonstration of the kitchen’s knowledgeable skilful cooking.   This $25 deal is worth driving early to the city or visiting after a night out for a play.

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Bistro D’oc is a downtown location that offers unfussy, tasty, and skillfully cooked food that pays tribute to the Southwest region of France, the region from which the owner’s patriarch claims his roots in his homeland.  The dishes possess a level of humble earthiness while exuding a level of sophistication that is expected from French cuisine, a fare that can rarely be found in other places like the hearty Cassoulet, the rich Duck Rillette Paté, and the gizzard studded Salad Languedoc.  This place is replete with a warm and welcoming ambience that makes the diner most welcome without feeling the stuffiness that can be found in some establishments.  With their interesting and enticing offerings,the dinner specials, and the $25 deal, Bistro D’oc will see this diner popping in through their doors quite frequently in the future to savor this delicious French fare that speaks to the soul.

Bistro D'Oc on Urbanspoon

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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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