La Carta de
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
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
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
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!
Albondigas, a soup with beef meatballs was not a big hit as I
felt it lacked a ton of flavor.
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
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
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
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.