Sit down in most small restaurants in Oaxaca, order the comida corrida (full meal, daily special) and as fast as the Flying Burrito Brothers your server arrives with a bowl of tepid soup with miniscule floating grease bubbles, a healthy portion of fried-in-oil-then-boiled white rice flecked with cubed carrot, a small piece of overcooked meat or poultry swimming in a scrumptiously tangy mole, a glass of fruity water-of-the-day (agua del día), and a two-inch slab of flan to finish … on the other hand there's La Olla.|
At popular downtown bistro-style restaurant La Olla, whether patrons indeed order the daily special, or select from the menu, co-owner-chef Pilar Cabrera offers the polar opposite --- a healthy yet flavorful and traditionally herbed alternative. She and husband Luis for years have had a faithful following of tourists and residents alike. This welcoming oasis has managed to thrive without my business, I suppose because while living in Oaxaca I've learned to live with lard, pine for Pan Bimbo and bolillos (respectively, the Mexican equivalent to starch-white Wonderbread, and crusty Portuguese-style buns), and search out everything else sugary, processed and refined. The sixties' all-things-good-for-you mentality had been baked out of mind forever, or so I had thought.
La Olla is a thirty-seat eatery with simple wooden tables and chairs and an adobe-brick and hand-painted tile hearth as focal point, on the main floor. A larger dining room with bar is upstairs. The restaurant is adorned with art by Oaxacan artists who exhibit on a rotating basis.
On this visit, my wife and our daughter Sarah chose from la carta, while I, daring the kitchen to even try to reduce my cholesterol level, opted for the 70 peso complete comida. Almost immediately upon being seated, a small loaf of fresh, hand-sliced whole grain bread, alongside tortilla chips, arrived in a basket, accompanied by butter, salsa and marinated vegetables. Predictably, Arlene gravitated towards the un-husked while I munched on the fried masa (corn).
I hadn't drank anything green since listening to Deep Purple, Moby Grape and the early years of Pink Floyd, so when tall soda-fountain glasses of what appeared to be murky algae arrived, I was aghast --- pineapple celery juice. I had no choice. I wasn't even asked if I would prefer Red Bull, or anything else with first ingredient dextrose, fructose or caffeine. It was well-chilled, with just the right combination of fruit and vegetable so as to provide a refreshing naturally sweet nectar, neither ingredient masking the flavor of the other.
The psychedelia continued. Who would ever think of combining peanuts, jícama (yam bean), orange pieces and boiled beet in its juices, and then having the nerve to call it a salad? I was in a purple haze. Definitely not the limp lettuce to which I'd become accustomed, drenched in a sea of joyful oil. Crunch and munch, followed by a sunburst of citrus, then soft legume, with seemingly more flavors, textures, colors and tones than the totality of each individual component.
Thankfully my soup held no surprises, although lima beans are not normally regular restaurant fare in Oaxaca, or elsewhere in this hemisphere. They were complemented by nopal (paddle cactus), onion, tomato with seed, and cheese, chile providing the requisite bite. Once again, attention had been paid to ensuring different degrees of consistency.
The chicken fajitas, on the other hand, were not as expected. But by this time I had reverted to my former self of decades long past, and willingly welcomed a main dish lacking excess grease. The strips of chicken breast were tender. The vegetables had been prepared separately so as to maintain their individual, appropriate degrees of doneness. The liquid was more in the nature of light stew juices than canola á la wok. The seasoning was Italian, yet with the pleasing essence of fresh cilantro predominating.|
Sarah's organic salad mirrored mine in terms of flavor and texture, but was sliced baked apple, watermelon chunks, flax seed and goat cheese. Her sopa azteca was inimitably served. Most Oaxacan restaurants serve all ingredients already combined, or the potage and some ingredients arriving already mixed together with those remaining on the side. At La Olla the tortilla slivers, cubed queso (cheese), avocado and dried chile pasillo strips are presented in a bowl, over which is then poured the tomato-based broth. Unfortunately the rich and distinctive flavor of the chile is not readily apparent due to the way the soup is served, so it's best to either stir and wait, or add some salsa and fresh lime juice to achieve maximum zestiness … unless you have a cowardly palate.
Arlene ordered the guachinango (snapper), deviating from her general rule of avoiding fish and seafood while in Mexico's interior. This new menu item is a keeper. Two good-size portions of properly pouched pisces, each wrapped in aromatic yierba santa leaf, were offered on a plate ringed with salsa guajillo. Once again there was a healthy bit of heat, and different textures provided by plaintain, nopal and jícama.
Our only regret was not having had an opportunity to sample some of the other natural fruit and vegetable combination juices and one of the hale and hearty sandwiches, for which La Olla is known. Perhaps next time … with alfalfa sprouts on the side, por favor.
Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. Alvin received his masters in social anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. Thereafter he was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and when they became permanent residents in 2004. Alvin reviews restaurants, writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, and tours couples and families to the villages.