My week in Oaxaca, this year, starts at the end. I am sitting at the Houston airport, having completed the first leg of 3, on my long journey home to Vancouver. I started writing a few posts during my trip, but throughout the week, I felt that most of my experiences were part of a story that started many years ago.
Coming back to Oaxaca year after year, I have been fortunate to be able to build connections with its talented food community. I love following the food and drink scene each year to keep up to date and eagerly anticipate catching up with people when I return. One of my favourite visits is with Chef Rodolfo Castellanos from Origen.
I met Chef Rodolfo in 2012, after a day I’d had in his kitchen with Chef Alejandro Ruiz. I immediately recognized the chef’s thoughtfulness and wanted to see how that translated in his food. A few days later, I went back to his restaurant and was served an extraordinary meal. It was a defining moment in why I keep Oaxaca on my travel agenda each fall.
Since then, each year I’ve returned to Oaxaca knowing that I will end each visit with a meal at Origen and that trying to connect and spend time with Chef Rodolfo is a priority.
In 2013, I was fortunate enough to be taken to the Abastos Market and then cooking an amazing lunch in Origen’s kitchen with Chef Rodolfo. Last year, because I was there during El Sabor del Saber festival, I wasn’t able to spend much time with the Chef, so as the months turned into weeks leading up to Oaxaca, I was eagerly anticipating my trip in hopes we’d be able to find time to connect and catch up.
I emailed Rodolfo a month before my trip and never heard back, (which is very unusual for him). I then heard from someone else that the Chef wasn’t in town and probably wouldn’t be for the time I was visiting. I was disappointed to hear that, but that disappointment quickly turned into excitement when Chef Rodolfo emailed me back a few weeks later to tell me he would in fact be in town for my visit and that we’d definitely meet up to do something.
I’d requested another day in the kitchen, but from the date we chose, he asked if I’d ever heard of a place called “El Mangalito” in Zaachila. I hadn’t, but I was in for anything the Chef was going to suggest.
On the day of our adventure, the gang met Chef Rodolfo at Origen and we laughed on our walk to the restaurant remembering a few years back when we squeezed 6 of us in his little hatchback on our trip to the market. This year, there were 6 plus the Chef, which surely meant we’d have to take 2 cars to Zaachila.
Well, throw my Canadian sensibilities out the window with that thought. “7 of us? No problem”! Rodolfo claimed once he had driven with 9 passengers in his car, one of which was #16 chef in the World, Enrique Olvera of Pujol. Well if the great Olvera could handle the squeeze, then surely we’d be able to cram 7 in easily…
Rodolfo is so welcoming and as we started our drive, conversation flowed easily and I realized how fortunate I was to be able to fill my days in Oaxaca with so much food pleasure. While I’ve enjoyed my time with the chef in the past at the market, in his kitchen or having him prepare and serve the most wonderful meals, this trip felt like I was hanging out with a friend, which opened the door for many more interesting conversations.
We made the 30 minute (cramped) drive to Zaachila, and although most who visit the town go on Thursday for market day, we were venturing out there on a Wednesday for comida.
I knew El Mangalito would be a treat, but as we sat down, I recognized it was going to be a very special experience, somewhere you’d only get to if you were “in the know”. I felt so thankful that Rodolfo would share this experience with us.
El Mangalito, is only open 1 day a week to serve a special pig feast. From what I learned, on the other days, the family works their farm, and if there are leftovers from Wednesday’s feast, they open on Thursdays as well.
Throughout the course of the meal, we would be served all parts of the pig in various preparations. But of course, we started with a mezcal.
Food started hitting the table and I quickly had to assess the food value to space in my stomach ratio to ensure I’d get the most out of this amazing meal.
Course after course were served and the live music was blaring which added to the jovial atmosphere. It was hard at times to hear what others were saying above the music, but it was incentive to concentrate on the food. I felt guilty because it was hard to engage the whole table in my conversations with the Chef. But the gang has always been so understanding and accommodating with my time with the Chef, knowing how focused I am about learning as much as I can with each visit.
My mind goes electric in these situations because I am allowed to not only share my great passion for food with someone who truly understands, but to learn as much as I can from someone who is not only willing to share his time but also his knowledge.
I’ve heard many times from different sources that Chef Rodolfo is the most talented chef in Oaxaca, and in a city with such wealth of amazing eating, that’s high praise. But my respect for the Chef is not only from his talent in the kitchen, but also because of his commitment to Oaxaca, its ingredients and his genuine feelings of community.
And because of this respect and feeling of gratitude that Rodolfo would share the wonderful experience of El Mangalito, I pushed way past my comfort zone of eating to forge ahead way past the bell in my head that tells me when I’ve had enough to eat.
Rodolfo ordered for “5” but with the amount of food served, we could have gotten away with 3-4 portions. I have never seen so much delicious pork sitting on the table, and it made me sad that I’m not a bigger eater. As I looked around the table, I think others felt the same way too.
There were enough leftovers from the meal to feed a few families in need, which is where Rodolfo distributed them to and as we drove slowly through traffic back to the city, the car weighed down from the indulgent meal, I felt lucky with my good fortune of amazing experiences in Oaxaca.
People who follow me, may believe I need gourmet Michelin starred experiences to feed my food loving passion, but after meals like these, I know that is not true. None of my lunch was pretty, most eaten with my hands, which I cleaned with flimsy paper napkins. But none of that mattered as (chipped) plate of plate after plate of soulfully delicious food was being placed in front of me. Tasty is tasty, no matter the presentation…
Gracias Chef Rodolfo for sharing such a wonderful meal with me and hopefully next time your wife can join us!