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21

2005
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La Carta de Oaxaca, Seattle, WA, tasted on April 10, 2005 — I owe Mexican food an enormous apology. I spent 25 years of my life thinking it was shit. And I was simply wrong. And the worst part is that the only proper atonement would involve me making a short trip down the coast to eat some actual Mexican food. When I lived in Santa Cruz, California, and worked in Watsonville - an agricultural center with a large immigrant population - you could almost forgive me. But now I live in Seattle, not exactly known for it's high quality Mexican food. And let's be clear, I'm not really even qualified to judge. For most of my life I thought Mexican food was the refried bean laden heavy crap that was glued together with rubbery cheese and served at restaurants like Chi-Chis, On the Border, and Azteca. Since I've never been to Mexico I just don't really know what's what. That said, I do have passion around what I perceive as high quality mexican food. The ingredients are fresh, the flavors are clean, bright, and bold, and there's lots of yummy melted (non-rubbery) cheese involved on a semi-regular basis. And despite all those caveats, as best I can tell, La Carta de Oaxaca, a seemingly authentic Oaxacan restaurant in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard pretty much rocks.

The place was packed and we were lucky not to wait even longer than the hour we did. And while environment doesn't count much for me, the arrangement of the photos on the wall with some of them backlit and the design in general really was very cool in my opinion. We started off with warm and crunchy tortilla chips and an array of progressively hotter salsas (available self-serve at the bar) and pico de gallo. The chips were definitely not what you get at the supermarket. They had a freshness about them beyond the warmth. The guacamole was creamy, but didn't have huge flavor. We also got the Cocktel de Camarones. Everyone I talk to isn't in love with this dish but I found it enjoyable. I guess to me it was more like a yummy gazpacho with little shrimps throughout. I didn't really think of it as a proper shrimp cocktail. Maybe that was the difference. It's amazing how much expectations matter.

I ordered the Tacos Al Pastor (pork tacos), a benchmark in my opinion, of a good Mexican restaurant. These were smokey and sweet with some fire on the finish. Benchmark, met. The Molotes were potatoes and beef sausage wrapped in fried tortillas with all the requisite toppings. The were fresh, beefy, and starchy in a good way. They were still light.

Their signature dish was the Mole Negro Oaxaqueno. We had ours with pork. Mole is a sauce made typically with several kinds of chilies, a bunch of spices, sometimes nuts, and even chocolate. The recipes are passed down from generation to generation and vary in each region across Mexico. The sauce is dark, and thick, and (though I hate using a cliché like this) soul-satisfying. This particular dish was simply beautiful. The sweetness was not cloying but almost in the bittersweet category, but like some distant cousin of what you typically expect that to mean. The flavor was deep. Down in the depths of your stomach/close your eyes to enjoy it deep. And the pork that it covered simply fell apart as it was so tender. The mole was excellent.

The Empanadas (Chicken with yellow curry sauce grilled in a fresh tortilla) were very good as well. And as far as the Quesadillas Fritas, fried cheese with a crunchy shell? I'm in! The Albondigas, a soup with beef meatballs was not a big hit as I felt it lacked a ton of flavor. Debbie and Walter disagreed.

We also got another round with the mole as it was served with our square steaming tamale wrapped in a banana leaf. Walter did the honors of unwrapping this little treasure for us. The mole elevated anything it touched including my fingers as they tried to get every last bit into my mouth off of the gleaming plate.

And as much as I liked the mole, the Entomatadas was perhaps my favorite dish of the night. It was essentially grilled thin sliced beef (Tasajo) with tortillas in a tomatillo or red sauce covered with Oaxaqueno cheese, onion, and crema Mexicana (which seems somewhere between sour cream and mayo to me). We had the green tomatillo sauce and it was fantastic. The steak was among the best I've ever eaten. It was super juicy and savory. The tortillas were soft and delicious and simply full of flavor. Fantastic. I could have eaten three orders of this on my own.

Like I said, I'm not really qualified to tell you whether La Carta de Oaxaca is authentic Oaxacan food. Walter said he rated it worth the drive to Ballard (which if you live in Seattle you know is not a drive you choose to do often). For me, aside from accidentally spotting famous musicians (or someone who looks just like them) in the corner of my food photography, the food really reigned at La Carta de Oaxaca. And whether I could tell it apart from the food I might get down in this region of Mexico I didn't really need to know, as the deep and complex flavors and the fresh ingredients tasted as genuine as they could be to me. And that's all that really matters.

 

     
     
     
     
     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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