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La Catrina de Alcalá

Oaxaca Restaurant Review

an article by Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya
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Restaurante La Catrina de Alcalá
La Catrina de Alcalá ranks amongst the city's finest restaurants, rather unusual since most other restaurants within two blocks of the Oaxaca's zócalo manage to get by with cafeteria-style atmosphere, mariachis and marimbas, and mediocre food. But owner / artist Rolando Rojas took the plunge, and the gamble has paid off: both quality Oaxacan, and unique continental fare in a tasteful courtyard setting, in the heart of the Centro Histórico.

The establishment is actually three businesses combined in a two-story piece of prime real estate, along Oaxaca's famed pedestrian walkway, Macedonia Alcalá: an upper level boutique style hotel; an art gallery featuring the works of Rojas and several other respected local artists; and the adjoining eatery, managed by chef Juan Carlos Guzmán Toledo.

The experience begins with an attractive young woman clad in regional dress, smiling and welcoming at the restaurant's entranceway, ushering you to your table. The focal point is a large, cantera stone fountain. Otherwise the décor is minimalist, white walls adorned with sparsely placed art and a series of gilt stars. Yet the ambiance somehow exudes comfort and warmth, perhaps facilitated by the lone strumming troubadour, half hidden behind a strategically placed cluster of plants.

Waiters are eager to show off their English proficiency, whether needed or not, as bowls of salsa, one smoky tomato-based, and the other with a hint of shrimp are placed alongside totopos (crispy, toasted corn-flour crackers).

The restaurant prides itself in its use of seasonal, locally produced ingredients, and boasts that when you patronize La Catrina you're helping local economies. Vegetarian dishes, "slow food," and plates from the Isthmus region of the state are noted. However, occasionally the odd import sneaks in as a special, such as kobe beef.

The menu otherwise covers all the bases: soups, salads and appetizers; meat, poultry and pasta; fish and seafood, and regional specialties such as a selection of three Oaxacan moles. But even those dishes in the continental genre are often presented with local flare.

Particularly noteworthy as starters are the poblano pepper soup with mushrooms, squash blossom and bacon, and hierba santa leaves stuffed with Oaxacan string and goat cheeses in a green tomato and mecco chili sauce. The salads range from the traditional to the unique (jícama, sunflower seeds, toasted almonds, wheat quenelle, fried hibiscus flowers and fresh cheese with hibiscus dressing). The staff is extremely accommodating in terms of sensitivity to those with dietary restrictions or a purist palate. For example, at our most recent evening out, chef Juan Carlos was happy to comply with my wife's request for a simple small green salad.

. The seared tuna with mango and habanero sauce, alongside white beans in coconut milk is prepared to perfection, with the flavor of each ingredient easily discernible. The sliced duck and fresh fig is served on a bed of julienne of zucchini "spaghetti," smothered with a dark purée of honey-fig. And beef lovers are able to experiment with the non-traditional, be it a rib eye served with guacamole and creamy garlic-stuffed chili, or go for something more Oaxacan, steak marinated with mezcal, pineapple and apple, served with garlic purée stuffed chilito.

All of the after-dinner non-alcoholic hot beverages are available high-test, or decaffeinated, so extend your evening without concern, perhaps concluding with a martini glass brimming with a selection of three tropical fruit sorbets.

Also noteworthy: La Catrina has developed a dedicated breakfast and lunch crowd, often comprised of predominantly local residents. Coffee or tea is suggested upon arrival, with warm, freshly baked breads and an assortment of sweet rolls for the asking. Dishes include an assortment of eggs and omelets, traditional Oaxacan breakfast fare such as enchiladas, tamales, chilaquiles and typical Oaxacan grilled meats with garnishes, both unique and traditional salads, and sandwiches featuring spinach, goat cheese, pecan, apple, basil, mushroom and squash blossom.

La Catrina de Alcalá. M. Alcalá 102, a couple of blocks north of the zócalo. Oaxacan cuisine with an international flare. Locals and tourists.

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in Social Anthropology from Toronto's York University, and a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Alvin ceased practicing law in 2004, when he and his wife began living permanently in Oaxaca. Since that time, Alvin has written well over 80 articles about life and cultural traditions in and around Oaxaca and its central valleys, including numerous restaurant reviews, for newspapers, magazines, and websites. The Starkmans run Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast, a unique bed and breakfast experience combining the comfort and service of a downtown Oaxaca hotel, with the personal touch of country inn style lodging in a quaint semi-rural setting.

La Catrina de Alcalá is one of the finest restaurants in Oaxaca, combining tasteful yet minimalist ambiance, with efficient service, and exquisite cuisine … both Oaxacan regional, and continental with a Mexican flare.

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