A Different South of the Border
** Casa Oaxaca
2106 18th St. NW. 202-387-2272 www.oaxacaindc.com
Open: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to midnight. Closed Mondays. All major credit cards. Street parking. Metro: Dupont Circle. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $6.50 to $12, entrees $12 to $24.
Requesting a margarita in a Mexican restaurant is standard operating procedure for many diners. Hearing the question, "What kind of tequila would you like?" and getting a choice of nearly 20 different brands of firewater is an uncommon follow-up. Happily, that's the norm at the freshly minted Casa Oaxaca (say "wa-HA-ka"), whose owners promised a menu that would steer clear of cliches and shine a light on a region in Mexico known for its good taste. Oaxaca is prized for attractions including its chocolate, cheeses and the cooked sauces known as moles.
The restaurant comes to Adams Morgan with a pedigree: For nearly seven years now, owners Rolando Juarez and Karen Barroso have been making some good impressions with Guajillo in Arlington. For their latest project, the husband and wife recruited a family friend, Alfio Blangiardo, from Puebla outside Mexico City, to head up the kitchen. The difference between Casa Oaxaca and much of its competition is evident early in the meal, when, instead of chips and salsa, a plate of jicama sticks dusted with chili powder and garnished with lime wedges is delivered to the table. The treat whets, rather than tempers, a diner's appetite.
Which is a good thing, since the small menu offers ample opportunity to fill up. A nice introduction to the antojitos, or snacks, is a trio of quesadillas made from blue corn. Thin as crepes and lightly crisp, the near-black packets are variously filled with poblano peppers, shredded pork and huitlacoche, the earthy-sweet delicacy with the unglamorous English translation (corn smut or fungus). Arranged on their plate with a drift of sour cream, crumbles of cheese and chopped peppers, the threesome could stand in for a light entree. Hidden in a banana leaf, Oaxaca's chicken-filled tamale is as comforting as a letter from Mom, while the refreshing seviche could pass for a first course served at a fancy downtown address. Diced red snapper is formed into a sparkling cake with onions, tomatoes, cilantro and pineapple, then presented with a fan of creamy avocado on top. The result is a seviche to remember, particularly on a hot summer day.
A shell of tortilla holds a well of melted Oaxacan white cheese, its surface flecked with crunchy, dark bits of fried grasshopper, a common snack on the streets and in the bars of Oaxaca. Cooked in olive oil with lime and garlic, the insect adds flavor as well as texture to the conversation-starting fondue, which is served with warm tortillas.
You might not expect to find pasta on a Mexican menu, but there's a family connection to the ravioli appetizer: Blangiardo is paying homage to his father, an Italian. The slippery, free-form sheets of pasta filled with huitlacoche are a terrific tribute, staged as they are in a shallow cream-and-cheese sauce strewn with squash blossoms and poblano chilies.
The kitchen makes half a dozen moles, three of which can be explored at once if you order "tres moles" chicken. The breast is nice and moist, but it basically serves as a canvas to show off the sauces: black (complex with ancho peppers, chocolate, ground peanuts, raisins and cinnamon); green (zesty with tomatillo, epazote and the anise-flavored leaf known as hoja santa); and yellow (coaxed from yellow tomatoes, onion, garlic and more). The moles lend color and nuance wherever they go, sometimes upstaging the featured attraction. While the meat falls easily from the bones of baby pork ribs, for example, it doesn't have much porcine appeal.
Other dishes are so enticing, they make it difficult for a diner to deviate from them on return visits. Grilled steak is listed as a house favorite, and one bite of the entree is apt to make you a convert, too. The kitchen uses skirt steak, a cheap but flavorful cut, seasoning it with smoked cumin, fresh oregano and cracked peppercorns. The result is agreeably chewy and pretty irresistible. Like most of the main dishes, this one comes with some very good sides: garlic-infused black beans; rice that picks up extra savor from oil that has been flavored with celery and carrots; cool and creamy guacamole. Good as they are, I'd trade them all for the corn on the cob, which has been grilled, shaved and tossed with dried cilantro and a cream sauce that resembles mayonnaise. Of the handful of tacos, roasted lamb shot through with guajillo and other peppers wins my loyalty; if I'm surfing, I gravitate to pearly shrimp draped with a delicate white sauce.
Now to throw some cold water on this fiesta. Twice, I've struck out ordering cooked fish dishes. Red snapper paved with crushed sunflower seeds was woefully dry, as were tacos stuffed with stiff, breaded turbot -- fish sticks that appear to have gone, as the Munchkins might sing, "where the goblins go: below, below, below." If you want to fish here, stick with that seviche.
Simple is best when it comes to dessert, and the dense flan is my preferred sign-off. Avoid the bread pudding, which resembles French toast that's been drenched in syrup, fried to a teeth-testing crunch and hacked to pieces. The chef channels Italy again with a sweet and fluffy tiramisu that is made more Mexican with the inclusion of mezcal.
Casa Oaxaca's two small floors are as easy to take in as the cooking. The grotto-like basement offers a bar set off with silvery star-shaped lights and black-and-white cowhide stools, as well as a few blood-red booths and religious artifacts in the rear. Just as cozy is the dining room upstairs, where a wagon wheel, a giant sombrero and serious folk art decorate the red-orange walls. Low ceilings and close tables give both levels the snug fit and intimate appeal of a city apartment.
The same attention to detail accorded the food and design goes into the training at Casa Oaxaca, where you can count on straight answers from your servers -- and, truth be told, food that sometimes arrives a little too quickly. Inquire about all those tequilas for instance, and you might learn which are young, which are aged and just how varied their styles can be. The eye-opener that most reminds me of Oaxaca is mezcal. Like tequila, mezcal is a liquor distilled from the heart of the agave plant; both spirits deliver a similar punch (around 40 percent alcohol). But there's no mistaking tequila and mezcal on the tongue -- the latter goes down like liquid smoke, from a volcano.
Much as I enjoy a proper margarita, I prefer to take my tequila or mezcal as they do south of the border: by itself and in a shot glass. The contents are sipped, like wine, rather than knocked back in a single gulp, as in college. Come to think of it, that slow and deliberate approach pretty much sums up the cooking at Casa Oaxaca, a mom and pop that cares and dares to be a little different.
To chat with Tom Sietsema online, go to washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.