Food Travel America / Peak Experience

Barcelona, Paris, New York, (Casa)Oaxaca… yes, the food is that good.

Still electric after my Day with Chef Alejandro Ruiz, I was sad I didn’t have a few more days in Oaxaca on this trip. Chef Alejandro had given me a few recommendations and it seemed I had more food adventures than days left in Oaxaca. I was feeling like I was missing out by not getting to dine at Ruiz’s Casa Oaxaca. Anyone who knows me, knows I hate feeling like I’m missing out on anything, so it was much to my delight when I was able to arrange my schedule to lunch at Casa Oaxaca with a meeting with the chef.

I arrived at the restaurant early enough to wander through the attached Quetzalli gallery. I like that Oaxaca Sus takes time to wander through galleries, it’s this slow and easy pace, that makes me long to return to Oaxaca even before I’ve left.

I was outside taking some exterior photos when Chef Alejandro drove up with a van-load of produce just picked from his farm. I was so distracted by the abundance of products that I never did get a great outside shot.

Casa "Oaxaca farm Alejandro Ruiz"

Chef Alejandro was kind enough to show me around the restaurant and answer my many questions as I tagged along by his side. I kept marvelling at the beauty of the restaurant, which even from the entrance seemed to be welcoming me in for a magical experience.

"Casa Oaxaca Door "

"Casa Oaxaca Outside"

When we arrived in the kitchen, there was a lot of action with cooks prepping for the day and others unloading the produce from the farm. Alejandro beamed with pride showing off his harvest. The connection between farm and chef is important and for Alejandro it has become part of his business. The gorgeous romaine, carrots, radishes, squash and tomatoes that were unloaded from the van were coming from his very own farm. No  need to worry if the produce is criollo (local) when it comes from his own source.

Chef Alejandro Ruiz Oaxaca

As I was guided through the different spaces of the restaurant, it started to strike me that I’d become entranced by the eating in Oaxaca not only for the food, but also because the dining experiences included charming spaces like Casa Oaxaca,(and Origen & Pitiona). Who wouldn’t dream of eating amazing food in open air spaces, inside beautiful old buildings, in the middle of December?

"Casa Oaxaca downstairs"

Casa Oaxaca terrace

I took a seat on the patio to soak up some rays on my last day in Oaxaca and Chef Alejandro came by for a visit. He asked what I was interested in eating and because so many things on the menu looked delicious, I asked him to choose. Any time I can say to the chef, “omakase” is a good day for me! What I didn’t realize at the start, but was delighted to see, were many of the things Alejandro and I discussed in our time together a few days before. From different criollo ingredients to various preparations of foods, I felt like I went from having practical knowledge to actual knowledge. That’s the best transition when it comes to food!

"Casa Oaxaca deck Alejandro Ruiz"

My view at lunch. Basking in the thought that at home I’d be wearing boots and a winter rain jacket.

"Casa Oaxaca Criollo tomato Alejandro Ruiz"

Centerpiece on the table looked vaguely familiar.

The meal started off with a salsa made tableside in a molcajete, served with several different tortillas.

"Casa Oaxaca Salsa"

"Casa Oaxaca Alejandro Ruiz salsa"

Given the choice between the red or green tomatoes, I went with the tomatillo.

"Casa Oaxaca Alejandro Ruiz tortilla"

IMG_6116

I could have just kept eating the salsa with the various tortillas for my lunch, but knew there was more food to come. It was one of those times I wished I had some plastic containers to pack my leftovers (or another stomach to pack it in to), because I had a feeling I was in for a treat and that it was going to be more food than I could handle.

As the plates came out, it felt like I was on a first date. I didn’t know what was coming, but I anticipated amazing things. It turned out that the meal was the perfect way to woo me into the heart of contemporary Oaxacan cuisine.

"Casa Oaxaca Alejandro Ruiz blossom"

Flores de Calabaza – Ricotta stuffed squash blossoms with honey and epazote.

The squash blossoms, which Alejandro has taught me never to cook, were delicate, soft and sweet. The vibrant colours caught my eye, but were so the flavours were so delicately sublime that they teased my palate into wanting more.

"Casa Oaxaca Alejandro Ruiz camarones"

Camarones a la Vainilla – Vanilla scented sautéed shrimp with apple quince butter, heirloom tomatoes from Tlacolula and local vanilla beans.

Pure happiness on the plate, the unexpected hint of vanilla elevated this dish to another level. I knew it would be rude to lick my plate clean, but I did my best to get every last bit of goodness from that plate. Just as I started feeling unworthy of such a tremendous experience, a shot of mezcal showed up at my table to help loosen me up  so I could relax and just appreciate the dishes to follow.

"Casa Oaxaca Alejandro Ruiz Mole"

Verde de Lechon – Crisp suckling pig with green mole and white beans.

Chef Alejandro had explained that to prepare his suckling pig, it’s deboned, placed in layers in a pan and topped with its skin and roasted away. When he described it to me originally, I swooned just imagining it. In reality, it was better. The bright and herbaceous mole verde carefully balanced the rich, unctuous pork. This was one of the best preparations of pork I’ve ever eaten.

"Casa Oaxaca Alejandro Ruiz Chocolate"

Rollitos de Chocolate – Chocolate taquito with tropical fruit & Creme brûlée

2 desserts? Are you kidding me??? Lucky I wore my elastic waistband pants… Joking aside, I felt like I couldn’t give these the adoration they deserved. They were both so delicious that I kept going back for 1 more bite, only to feel like I may have to be rolled out of the beautiful Casa Oaxaca.

I was introduced to Oaxacan food only a few years ago, but from first bite, I knew it was special. It is complex, even at its most basic. I appreciate the traditional cuisine with its strong ancestral roots, described to me twice on this trip as Baroque. My longing to keep returning has always been a curiosity to many of my friends. In the past, because people don’t understand that it can be more than rice, beans and sweet mole, I’ve been happy to keep the wonders of Oaxacan cuisine to myself, but its meals like this that make me want to run to rooftops to cry out to others on what they’re missing. Barcelona, Paris, New York, Oaxaca… yes, the food is that good.

A heartfelt thank you goes out to Chef Alejandro Ruiz who not only gave his time, but for also providing me with experiences that have opened my eyes and palate on contemporary Oaxacan cuisine. I love the flavours of  traditional Oaxacan ingredients, and was delighted and surprised over and over with unexpected flavour combinations and new techniques. Although I wouldn’t say I was bored with the traditional, I now have so much more to look forward to on future visits.

Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante – Constitución 104-4, Col. Centro, Oaxaca

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