Run for the Border

Just before you hit Shoreline, you’ll find an oasis of Oaxacan food.

While most Mexican restaurants in the U.S. serve mole, it’s generally Puebla-style–a deep brown, sweet-spicy sauce of dried chiles, nuts, fruits, spices, and chocolate. Northerners like to focus on the chocolate part, which is how some of the worst moles I’ve eaten at American Mexican restaurants seemed to have consisted of melted Hershey’s whizzed up with tomato paste and pickled jalapenos.

The southern state of Oaxaca is legendary for its seven moles. There’s wide disagreement about which of a dozen well-known versions make the definitive list. But most experts count the mild amarillo made with the yellow Oaxacan guajillo chile; the fruity manchamantel sweetened up with pineapples and bananas; and deep, dark, spicy mole negro. Each is as complex and varied as the best Indian curries, and though restaurants usually serve mole over poached chicken breast or enchiladas, the “sauce” is really the main dish. A bowl of mole and a stack of fresh-made tortillas is a noble meal.

You can find both Oaxacan-style moles and fresh-made tortillas at La Casa Azul, a six-month-old restaurant on the northern reaches of Greenwood Avenue, near the border of Shoreline. The menu isn’t universally spectacular, but Casa Azul’s versions of Oaxacan specialties like entomatadas and picaditas are as good as the ones at the much-loved La Carta de Oaxaca, and you’ll spend more time waiting in line at the Ballard hotspot than you will driving a few hours north.

In the past five years, restaurants specializing in Oaxacan regional food have emerged up and down the West Coast, distinguishing their food from the mass of what we consider “Mexican cuisine.” Why does Oaxaca deserve its own call-out, when Seattleites have long been enjoying carnitas, say, without realizing it’s a regional specialty of Michoacan? Better branding, perhaps: Oaxaca—with its Zapotec villages, its picturesque capital city, and those moles—carries a mystique that draws millions of tourists every year (me: class of ’04), and Oaxacan restaurateurs are happy to capitalize on their reputation for uniqueness.

Not that you’ll see any sign that the owners of La Casa Azul sell the exoticism factor hard. First-time restaurateur Isaac Jimenez may import all his chiles from Oaxaca, where his family comes from, but he named his restaurant after Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City. The strip-mall restaurant contains no Mixtec weavings, no souvenirs from the Monte Alban ruins. It’s simply painted cornflower blue, lime green, and rust, a combination that only the most color-confident could pull off.

In similarly discreet fashion, Casa Azul’s trifold menu lists the Oaxacan specialties (all marked “specialty”) amid pan-Mexican dishes. The latter include alambres tortas filled with a Philly cheesesteak–like mass of chicken griddled up with slices of ham, caramelized onions, and red and green bell peppers, and held together with cheese; and a gigantic candy dish filled with fat prawns in a sweet tomato coctel sauce spiked with freshly diced onions and celery seed, soothed with chunks of avocado, and served with saltines for dipping. Despite the fact that the cooks press their tortillas to order, both of the taco plates I ordered were awful—the shrimp cooked “al mojo de ajo” had been sauteed so lightly that they’d stayed blueish raw, and our embarrassed waiter took the dish off the bill after he saw the picked-over plate. Conversely, the steak in the carne asada tacos was—well, what’s the superlative for “well done”? Most done ever? Close.

A number of Casa Azul’s regional specialties are minor variations on familiar themes. A better way to savor the sweet-corn flavor of the restaurant’s homemade tortillas are its entomatadas, three thick, uneven rounds dipped in a green tomatillo salsa, like enchiladas without the filling. They come with a few swaths of tasajo, grill-marked sheets of beef that have been air-dried long enough to concentrate their juices and that show up in as many dishes in Oaxaca as chicken breast does in Indiana. Likewise, it’s hard not to think of picaditas—crisp saucer-sized tortillas topped with smashed black beans, shredded chicken, cabbage, and cheese—as tostadas renamed by Oaxacans. Football-shaped molotes evinced a different sense of familiarity. The deep-fried masa fritters are stuffed with potatoes and flecks of chorizo and covered in pureed black beans, and they taste like something you’d order up with a pair of bowling shoes and a pitcher of MGD.

The restaurant’s moles and tlayuda, however, are genuinely distinctive tastes. You could think of the tlayuda (pronounced kly-OO-dah), Oaxaca’s most distinctive street-food snack, as a mammoth nacho: A thin baked tortilla the size of an album—and crispier, too—is brushed with lard and paved over with refried black beans, followed by a web of white Oaxacan string cheese, shredded green and red cabbage, and finally a pattern of tomato wedges and avocado slices. For three bucks extra, the cooks will add a couple sheets of tasajo. This last ends up making the tlayuda, never easy to eat in polite society, as impossible to eat with a fork and knife as a bowl of popcorn, but when you painstakingly crack off a mouth-sized wedge and maneuver it into your mouth-sized mouth, the crunch makes the effort worth it. It could be due to the meatiness of the pork fat, or to the tanginess of the cheese—El Casa Azul’s tlayuda is better than any I’ve tasted in either Seattle or Los Angeles.

Both Jimenez’s mole coloradito and his mole negro come from family recipes, and he offers them over chicken breast or enchiladas. The black mole is one of the trickiest of the classic moles, not just because its ingredient list fills up a sheet of legal-size paper but because its color comes from scorching several of the ingredients. (Try making it at home and you might just infuse capsicum smoke into your kitchen towels, sofa, and contact lenses.) Sadly, that charred bitterness haunts La Casa Azul’s mole negro too persistently, overpowering its sweeter notes and underlying spices. But the brick-colored mole coloradito is much more finely tuned, with a grapy richness and a syncopated heat that shows up right after you’ve stopped bracing for it. The friend who ordered the mole coloradito devoured an entire chicken breast and a mound of rice trying to absorb it all. Across the table, I grabbed a fresh, warm tortilla from the stack and darted around his fork to swab up everything I could get, feeling a bit like a pigeon and more like a king.