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Azucena Zapoteca

a restaurant review by Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya
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For literally decades, Oaxacans waited for a restaurant with quality food and pleasant ambience to open along the highway traversing the villages of San Bartolo Coyotepec (black pottery), San Martín Tilcajete (alebrijes) and Santo Tomás Jalieza (cotton textiles) en route to the Friday market town of Ocotlán. Azucena Zapoteca Restaurant and Gallery opened its doors in October, 2004, and since then not once have I made the trek to the villages without stopping by for comida. Located about 30 minutes out of Oaxaca on Highway 175 right at the entrance to San Martín Tilcajete, you can’t miss the brilliantly painted rotunda-style oasis in this otherwise culinary desert.

The operation has recently expanded into two distinct parts with the gallery, kitchen and washrooms housed in one building and the restaurant in another. Regarding the former, owners Jacobo and Maria Ángeles have gathered the works of about 15 of the best quality artisans in the region. Together with their own pieces, the gallery’s walls and ceiling are filled with splashes of striking color in glass, pottery and wooden masterpieces. Usually a family member is present, painting a fanciful wooden figure with the most intricate of predominantly Zapotec designs. Ask the significance of each symbol and the process by which the paints are made from all natural, primarily vegetable products.
But we’re here mainly for the comida. After seating you either inside, or along the open air three-sided patio, friendly and attentive staff promptly come by with drinks and complimentary snacks of tostadas, salsa and guacamole. Ask for a pitcher of the agua del día, perhaps guayaba, watermelon or papaya. In an appropriately understated fashion, contemporary soft Latin music fills the air. What immediately strikes you about the menu is the number of unique plates often not brought together in a single restaurant. For this review it is in order to provide a brief summary of a previous visit’s dishes before noting this delectable sojourn. The diverse offering of tamales was flavorful and moist, yet greaseless as we can often only yearn to experience; the empanada of amarillo tasted as if made by a comadre with decades of experience preparing meals for her extended family; the salsa de huevo arrived steaming and savory; and finally, what a treat to be offered chiles en nogada when out of season without having to worry if it will be up to par. If you’ve never tried this dish, here’s the place…a poblano chili filled with a seemingly odd concoction of carefully chosen and blended spices, pork, chopped and braised fruits and vegetables, topped with a distinct sauce of walnut, cream or goat’s milk cheese, sugar and another spice mixture, garnished with pomegranate seeds. It’s a national treasure, complete with its green, red and white presentation.
For our most recent outing we each started with sopa Benito Juarez, a light bean soup with small cubes of queso and slight hint of pork and fresh epazote, garnished with a crisp twirled tostada. As my main course I chose tinga, rolled into three large tacos, placed over a bean purée and heavily topped with shredded lettuce and crumbled queso. Tinga is a mix of shredded pork, tomato and onion, nicely seasoned without any significant “heat.” A friend ordered pipian, chicken pieces arriving stew-like in a large bowl with a green sauce of miltomate and white beans, the predominant flavor and texture coming from the roasted, ground squash seeds. Another guest opted for the zegueza, which arrived piping hot. With beef as the main ingredient, it is made with chili guajillo in a tomato based sauce with subtle clove essence. Its crunch and body is created from coarsely ground corn kernels. By the time we had finished what was left of these splendid sauces (with the help of tortillas to wipe our bowls clean), all there was left to do was relax and listen to the music while sipping on café de olla and sharing a serving of plantain with cream.

Two helpful tips:

  1. If you opt for comida, consider planning your day so you arrive after having visited most of your selected stopovers so you don’t feel compelled to rush…it would be a waste to not get the most out of this dual sensory experience;
  2. Since dishes are made fresh and may take some time to prepare, to help balance the odds that each entrée will arrive fairly close in time to one another, ask your waiter to do his best to bring all the main courses together.
  • 8am to 7 pm daily
  • Km 23.5 Puerto Ángel, San Martín Tilcajete
  • Tel: 510-7884
  • Price: 60 – 85 pesos

Resident Oaxacan Alvin Starkman frequently takes private tour groups to the foregoing and additional villages and sites en route to Ocotlán. He and wife Arlene own and operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast.

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This page has been visited times since June 17, 2006.

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