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Casa Oaxaca Café Restaurant

a review of Casa Oaxaca #3 by author Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya
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In mid December, 2006, Casa Oaxaca's third restaurant opened, in Colonia Reforma at the location formerly occupied by Zandunga. The menu is different from the two downtown branches, and a successful effort has been made to provide a distinct and clearly more casual ambiance. However the shortcomings in quality of fare and lack of consideration for patrons' reasonable expectations are remarkable, surprising and disconcerting.
Casa Oaxaca seems to have immediately seized upon the opportunity to attract a relatively young Oaxacan crowd, a trademark of its predecessor, and built upon that major plus which lead to its succes--a relaxed, informal courtyard setting. Now there are tables not only under the roofed circumference, but also scattered amongst the trees tastefully lit up with strings of lights, on the grass, and along the stone pathway. One can sit under vines climbing arbors, alongside a smartly decorated well, or take in the aroma of tortillas being freshly made on a comal over firewood in a brick enclosure. The final touches are the outdoor cantina, simple white and terra cotta decor, and live music Thursday through Saturday in the evening. This, coupled with a staff who have clearly been trained at ensuring drinks are served promptly and meals arrive hot and in unison, would suggest that the rest of any meal would similarly meet high standards. Be that as it may, this was not to be the case, at least not on this occasion.
Almost toasted slices of baguette were served with sides of two red salsas, onion slices marinated in lime juice, and guacamole. However, with European style bakery Pan & Co. only blocks away, one would have thought that some arrangement could have been made to provide a fresh bread, or if keeping costs down was a consideration, then more thinly sliced and crispy toast á la brochette. This particular complimentary starter just didn't cut it.
The salads could have been exceptional, but because they were overly dressed it was hard to determine with certainty. The medley of lettuce, watercress, avocado and toasted almond in a mandarin vinaigrette had far too much oil. The "agridulce" which included grapefruit sections, avocado and hierbabuena, topped with pine nuts, had the requisite uniqueness in flavor, but was simply drenching.
The presentation of the red snapper in a white wine sauce with oyster mushrooms and side of grilled small potatoes and asparagus was regretably unremarkable, the entrée itself was overcooked and flavor non-descript. My entrée of tongue with capers, actually an estofado, held no surprises, thankfully, and in fact ranked with the better estofado de lengua I've enjoyed. A generous quantity of mole was as expected, and had a nice bite to the aftertaste. Similarly the appetizer of chile de agua stuffed with requezón cheese and huitlacoche was an attention-getter as it eased down the throat. The most visually pleasing plate of the evening, the two pale lime peppers with centers of dark green interiors set atop a sea of red sauce seemed to speak out and call for recognition, reminiscent of the appearance of plates at the sister establishments. Similarly, at least for this instant, the flavor combination carried me back downtown.
The decaf Americanos were the best in caffeine-free we've had in a long time, and braised pear in red wine with coriander was a treat, the burst of flavor as you cracked a seed being tempered by and well matched with the wine.
The foregoing dessert came close to raising the mediocrity of most of the meal, but then the biggest setback, receipt of the bill: charging 42 pesos for a glass of spicy tomato juice is outrageous, in particular when told upon inquiring that the cost was the same as a Bloody Mary (two of three of us were on parasite meds which precluded indulging). To make matters worse, the kitchen made a unilateral decision to serve a double order of the chile de agua appetizer without being asked to do so, simply because the third in our party elected to order it served at the same time as the two main courses, and charged double. Something was clearly amiss in terms of pricing and communication. For a party of three, with no alcohol, one dessert, four appetizers of which three were substandard, and two main courses one of which did nothing to impress, 720 pesos was a bit much, especially when compared to the previous night's Valentine's Day cena for six which ran 600 pesos at El Mirador, with six drinks. Granted the dining experience was different, but I'll return to the Cerro del Fortín before my next trip to Reforma.
Some suburban restaurants in the city are worth the cab ride out of downtown, but not this one, not right now. I will return, and update to the extent that it's warranted, perhaps in a couple or few months, sooner if asked. Those staying out of the downtown core might want to dine at Casa Oaxaca for the ambience alone. But a few words of advice: make sure you ask the price of everything that's not crystal clear, order salads with dressing on the side, try the tongue, chile de agua appetizer (as an appetizer), and braised pear, and don't miss out on the decaf Americano.

Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. Alvin received his masters in social anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. Thereafter he was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and when they became permanent residents in 2004. Alvin reviews restaurants, writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, and tours couples and families to the villages.

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