Mexico’s Day of the Dead puts Halloween to shame. Known there as Dia de los Muertos, the two-day celebration (Nov. 1-2) is an explosion of color, flavor and ritual that pays tribute to those who are no longer with us. Food is an integral part of this homage — rich chocolate mole sauce, sweet pastries, ornately decorated sugar skulls. The holiday thrives here in the District, so adventurous foodies needn’t pony up for a plane ticket to enjoy it.
Head chef Joe Raffa recently returned from a gastronomic tour of Oaxaca, Mexico, with culinary stars Rick Bayless and Susana Trilling. They explored the region’s seven distinct moles, all of which Raffa will prepare during the restaurant’s festivities through Nov. 2. “The one I’m the most excited about is the mole negro,” he reveals. “It’s the hardest to make and the most iconic. I’ve tried it many times, but I never got it to where I considered it great. But now I’ve gotten it to a great place.” Diners can also sample a pair of new tacos — the Menudo, below, is “a great hangover taco” stuffed with stewed beef tripe and topped with sweet onions and salsa Serrano.
Chef Thomas Schoborg serves up a tribute running through Nov. 21 at both the National Harbor and D.C. outposts of the restaurant chain. This year’s offerings include pan-roasted scallops with a pumpkin seed pipian sauce, flan and caramelized squash, as well as a crisp, roasted half-duck in an orange glaze. “Our dishes are traditionally grounded, but with a modern twist,” says Schoborg. “For example, we’re doing a pozole, which is a classic hominy soup that’s perfect for the fall. But we’re kicking it up a bit by adding the lobster.” The meal finishes with white-chocolate and orange cream-filled pumpkin cookies paired with a glass of nutmeg-spiced sweet horchata.
At this Columbia Heights bakery, there are signs of Day of the Dead everywhere. Bright banners of skeletons bicycling and dancing hang throughout the shop; the walls are dotted with multi-hued paper skull cutouts. “People really respond to all the color,” says owner Doron Petersan, who sports a pair of Day of the Dead skull tattoos on her arms and considers herself a year-round fan. She was introduced to the event during a trip to Mexico a decade ago but didn’t start crafting confections until last year, when she bought a set of Day of the Dead candy molds. Now she makes a variety of finely decorated sugar skulls, which can stand alone or top cakes and cupcakes. Though the sculptures are edible, they can survive more than one season if they’re used as decorations. “I still have some from years ago,” Peterson admits. “And they still look awesome.”
The Cacao Tree
Perhaps the most authentic Day of the Dead cuisine in D.C. comes from caterer and chocolatier Sandra Escobar of the Cacao Tree. Her traditional fare is based on recipes she learned growing up in Mexico City and Los Angeles. Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) comes sprinkled with sugar and infused with anise and orange blossom water. Tamales are filled with chicken covered in a traditional green sauce made with tomatillo and cilantro. Calabaza en tacha is chunks of pumpkin stewed in piloncillo (raw sugar), orange juice, anise, cloves and Mexican cinnamon bark until it’s nearly translucent and entirely decadent. For Escobar, all the food is about celebrating her ancestors. “I remember going to the cemetery where my grandparents are buried; there were mariachi bands playing and everyone was sitting around eating picnics,” she says. “It made me hope that somebody does that for me when I’m gone. Day of the Dead is a great comfort for those who are left behind.” Be sure to order now. Day of the Dead delights are available only through Nov. 2.
Food That’s To Die For:
» Oyamel, 401 7th St. NW; 202-628-1005. (Archives)
» Rosa Mexicano, 153 Waterfront St., National Harbor, Md.; 301-567-1144.
» Sticky Fingers, 1370 Park Road NW; 202-299-9700. (Columbia Heights)
» The Cacao Tree, Thecacaotree@hotmail.com; 202-904-9017.
Written by Express contributor Nevin Martell
Photos for Express by Nevin Martell