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El Patio Restaurant Review, Tlacolula, Oaxaca

by Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya
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Between the Oaxacan rug village of Teotitlán del Valle and the Sunday market town of Tlacolula, en route to the Zapotec ruin of Mitla, one finds El patio, a restaurant of contrasts and inconsistencies, intriguing because somehow the open air setting and general ambience is apt to draw you back every once in a while, notwithstanding that there are other restaurants along that stretch of road with more to offer in terms of reliability.
We've been frequenting the eatery on an occasional basis for perhaps 7 or 8 years now, and keep doing so. It's the expansive courtyard with comfortable breezes, the choice of seating in sun or shade, soft music broken only by the sounds of parrots vying for your attention, and pleasing and unique (for Oaxaca) décor, partially antique with vintage photos of Mexican screen stars, 50's and earlier typewriters and other collectibles, alongside traditional Oaxacan with a mix of crafts and more customary wall art adorning the patio floors and walls respectively. The comfortable and relaxed atmosphere together with our recollection of usually reliable fare constitute the allure.
Once drinks finally arrive, the wait for the complimentary memelitas and the rest of the meal is not unreasonable. If the mezcal tasting bar and gift shop were open on a consistent basis (there's certainly enough staff milling about to warrant hours of operation similar to that of the restaurant) one could understand the initial tardiness. But then again prudent use of labor has never characterized the Oaxacan worldview.
On this occasion perhaps 75% of what the four of us ordered could be described as good, but no more. So if you stick to the recommendations herein, and trust that there will be ongoing consistency in terms the ability of patrons to discern flavor combinations, freshness and keeping grease and fat under control, the percentage likelihood of each guest having a positive memorable dining experience could elevate to 90.
The sopa de guias, usually a reliable and always a typical dish was in fact better than how it is generally encountered. Rather than with a thick mix of corn starch as base, it was surprisingly light and not gooey, including the requisite squash along with the plant's blossom and runners and portion of corn. Ordered as a meal it comes with traditional tlayuda, an oversized tortilla topped with queso, quesillo, avocado, lettuce and tomato, and then with a healthy piece of flavorful tasajo placed atop. In this case the smokiness from the firewood used to heat and melt the toppings was a dominant essence.
Other dishes which serve the needs of the health conscious include the pollo a la plancha, a large boneless pounded then grilled chicken breast, served with veggies and starch, or if you prefer a double side of simply boiled-for-a-baby zucchini and carrots. My brother's sopa mixteca, a thick vegetable soup, was a bit light on flavor, but nevertheless served his obsessive need for fatless fare, quite the contrast to my caldo de gato, a meal sized tomato based vegetable soup which includes a couple of chunks of meaty pork spine. Even the almost always reliable squeezing in a couple of lime halves was unable to cut through the grease floating atop, bringing back memories of the Exxon Valdez.
Our party's meals were rounded out with a salad and mole. The former was typical to the extent that its ingredients were laid out separately on the plate, consisting of nicely grilled nopal paddles and zucchini slices, purple onion pieces and too many thick sticks of panela, a cross between Oaxacan queso, pressed cottage and Philadelphia cheeses. The estofado de pollo was once again accompanied by a green and orange medley of boiled not steamed. The main dish consisted of the correct combination of ingredients composing the mole (raisins, almonds, olives, miltomate, etc.) and would be pleasing to most. But for those yearning to experience the orgasmic sensation often associated with the reputation of Oaxacan cookery, the ingredients failed to maintain their individuality and ability to be discerned in the mix. For me that's the hallmark of a quality and unforgettable, prepared to order or at minimum same day, which in both cases clearly this was not.
Our recollection was that indeed the café de olla is good, and a couple of their desserts are worth trying, but with only a mediocre dining experience, one tends to not wish to prolong the encounter. On a hot sunny day when yearning for a comfy and relaxed setting, or if you've already passed El Descano in Teotitlán del Valle and are too hungry to wait until your arrival at Doña Chica's in Mitla (each of which is more reliable though not unique in setting), then drop in at El Patio for a comida. As long as my wife has her way, that's what we'll probably continue to do.

Alvin Starkman and wife Arlene operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. On an occasional basis Alvin writes restaurant restaurant reviews, while Arlene assists well-known Oaxacan chef Esperanza Chavarria Blando with private cooking lessons.

This page has been visited times since November 23, 2009.

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