Monday, October 30, 2006

"Oaxacan Feast" at Guelaguetza

At the "Oaxacan Feast" that I organized, our group definitely did some major feasting as we experienced a total of 14 different dishes. Two of those dishes were the obligatory rice and beans, but the other 12 are what I'm going to talk about below.

When we arrived, they first took our agua fresca drink orders. Throughout the evening, we could get refills of mango, guava or orange. I pretty much stuck with the guava drink the whole night. It was a little sweet for my taste, but I still liked it. Before our main food orders came out, we noshed on tortilla chips, which was topped with red mole sauce and maybe, cotija cheese? The mole sauce was tasty which definitely was a good indication of what was to come, so here we go:

1. Ensalada de Nopalitos (cactus tossed salad)

– I didn't care for this salad too much. The nopales seemed a little slimy to me. I didn't think the cheese added much to the salad and whatever dressing they used was really bland.

2. Botana Oaxaquena (assorted tasting plate, including Oaxacan string cheese, memelas, chorizo, tazajo and cecina, a fresh stuffed chile with picadillo, fried pork ribs and guacamole)

– This appetizer plate is meant just for 8 people, but I think that it can probably feed 10. It's a lot of food. I liked everything on the plate, but my favorites were the chorizo, which are spicy fried sausages. If you cut into and spread the sausage meat into the tortilla, put a little salsa and than fold it, that was just another way to enjoy it, but just on its own was good enough for me.

I also liked the Oaxacan cheese, stretchy and a little salty, but good and the memela, once I got over the fact that it was cooked with lard, was really good. It was a thick corn tortilla that had a bean puree and melted cheese on top of it and was really yummy.

3. Camarones Enchipotlados (shrimp sautéed in a chipotle sauce (spicy)

– The chiptole sauce for this shrimp was awesome. You got a little bit of heat with smoky undertones. I would have liked it spicier, but still a very good dish.

4. Filete a la Talla (red snapper fish marinated with a unique in-house salsa, oven cooked)

– This was actually an interesting dish in that it's not on the menu at the Koreatown location, but it is on the menu at the Olympic location, but since I really wanted it, they accommodated me by sending the Olympic chef to the Koreatown location to make it. I'm so glad that I insisted. Although the fish was a teensy bit dry, the sauce that was encrusted on it really made the dish. I'm not sure what the sauce was made of, but it reminded me of a rich flavorful tomato sauce with a little bit of spice, but not overwhelming.

5. Nopal Zapoteco (grilled cactus, topped with grilled beef, onions, tomato, bell pepper and cheese)

– After having experienced this dish recently also at La Casita and now here, I think I know that I'm not a fan of this dish. I just don't like the mouth texture of the cheese, beef and nopales combined.

6. Coloradito Con Puerco (pork covered with Oaxaca's famous red mole, made from chiles, nuts, seeds, spices and Oaxacan chocolate)

– Finally, we get the first of the 4 mole dishes that I had picked out. I already experienced a bit of this with the tortilla chips, but now we have it in its full glory. Of the four, this red mole was my favorite. There was just so much to it. I can't describe completely why I liked it so much, but there just seemed to be more flavor layers, compared to the three moles that followed this one.

7. Amarillo de Res (bowl of beef with yellow mole flavored with chiles, cloves and cumin)

– This is the first time I ever had yellow mole and it was interesting. With the cumin as a part of this sauce, for some reason, I had visions of Indian food in the sense that the spicing seemed kind of similar. It had just a different flavor profile than the red mole, but one I enjoyed.

8. Verde de Pollo (bowl of chicken with green mole made from fresh spicy green chiles with herbs including hierba santa and epazote)

– This was also the first time I had green mole. It was definitely lacking in any kind of heat as opposed to the red or the yellow moles, but again, a completely different flavor profile from either the red or yellow moles. It was a lighter mole than the others and tasted "greener", "grassier", but the epazote and hierba santa gave it a little bit of pungency that made it from being too bland.

9. Tamal Oaxaqueno de Mole con Pollo (finely ground corn dough packages, filled with shredded chicken in black mole and wrapped in banana leaves)

– This tamal was wrapped in the way that I didn't expect. Instead of opening up the banana leaves to see all of the tamal, it was if it was wrapped in layers. You open up one layer to eat part of the tamal and than open up the second layer for another part of the tamal, etc.

What bothered me about this dish was the shredded chicken because the meat was dry and a little stringy. The masa was good, but I've had better. The black mole was good, but it didn't wow me that much. Compared to the red mole, which I loved, this particular sauce didn't pack the flavor punch I would have expected. It could also be that my palate was exhausted. We had a whole bunch of food before this black mole came out, so I feel like I have to go back and check it out again to see if I like it better.

10. Chuleta De Puerco Enchilado Frito (chile-marinated and fried pork chops)

– I really liked this pork, but it was interesting in that it reminded me of Chinese BBQ Pork.

11. Empanadas de Huitlacoche (huge, handmade corn tortilla folded and stuffed with huitlacoche)

– For the life of me, I couldn't get into this dish. The texture of this corn fungus just didn't do anything for me.

12. Flan (homemade flan)

– So ends our meal with dessert and we all got flan. I didn't care for the flan at all. It had the consistency of jello gelatin. I prefer flan that's creamier.

So ends the "Oaxacan Feast". You can imagine that we were all stuffed beyond compare. Overall, I liked the food at Guelaguetza, but I'm glad that I was able to do a pretty good sampling of what's on their menu, because there are certain things I would certainly go back for and others I would skip entirely.

To see all the pictures, click here!

3337 1/2 W. 8th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90005
213-427 0601

Alamada Swap Meet and La Casita Adventure

One hot summer day, I hosted a really special event for my dining group. It was a two-part event where the morning was spent taking a tour of the Alameda Swap Meet and our tour guides were none other than Chefs Jaime Martin Del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu of La Casita Mexicana Restaurant and this was followed by a lunch at their restaurant.

First, let me talk briefly about the Alameda Swap Meet. While waiting for our two guides in front of the Swap Meet, we were just amazed at the eye-catching colors of the buildings from the bright yellow and green of the building housing the Swap Meet to the tropical blue of the building across from us. One of my members even commented on how the area was like being in Mexico.

Once Chefs Jaime and Ramiro arrived, they took us into the produce section of the Swap Meet and immediately started talking about the various greens, veggies and fruits that can be used for different styles of Mexican cooking. There was produce in that market that I never even heard about until they were pointed out to me. Things like epazote leaves that can be put into tortillas or put raw into salads. There were things I heard about, but have only seen one kind of usage like alfalfa. I'm used to alfalfa sprouts again in salads or sandwiches, but full grown alfalfa plants that can be blended, strained and with the addition of ice, lime juice and sugar made into a refreshing drink was definitely new to me.

The amount of information coming out of the two of them was just amazing. I only wish now that I had a tape recorder or something so that I could have captured more of the verbal gems they were giving to us.
Once you're able to pull yourself away from the produce section and walk towards the back, past a whole section devoted just to Mexican candy, you'll make it outside to the plaza where culinary delights will await you.

Mexican juices and waters, especially on a hot day, are there to refresh your palate. Golden brown churros dipped in sugar await your sweet tooth. If you're looking for a more substantial meal, there are a couple of places there where you can feast on tacos, burritos or whatever catches your fancy. There was really something there for everyone. Just those couple of hours with Chefs Jaime and Ramiro at the Alameda Swap Meet would have made my day, but the second half of the event really made my month. After exploring the Swap Meet, we all trekked over to La Casita Mexicana for a feast that I'll never forget. When this event was first set up, Chefs Jaime and Ramiro promised a culinary tour of Mexico and they certainly delivered.

Upon our arrival at the restaur
ant and our drink orders were taken and throughout the lunch, we were able to quench our thirst with either the lemonade with chia seeds or the cactus pear water. We were also given the option of having the alfalfa drink that I mentioned earlier and I have to tell you that it was my favorite aqua fresca of the three. I'm not even sure how to describe it, but I liked the "grassy" taste combined with the lime and sugar. It was a very refreshing drink without being overly sweet.

While waiting for our drinks, we started snacking on tortilla chips that had their dark mole sauce drizzled over it. With that delicious mole sauce, I didn't ev
en need the salsa that was also on the table. The mole sauce had a rich, dark smoky flavor to it and was a good preview to the traditional mole poblano that was going to be coming later on in our meal. Some of the members in the beginning part of the lunch were able to go back to the kitchen to see some of our dishes being made.

One of them brought back to the table a quesadilla made with a homemade corn tortilla. Mixed in with the masa before it was cooked, were little bits of the epazote leaves and the quesadilla was stuffed with melted cheese and squash blossoms, purchased. Already here are two appetizers that were so impressive that I was definitely looking forward to what was going to follow and look below for what that comprised of:

1. Aztec Cheese Fondue with Epazote Tortillas
(4 different Mexican cheeses filled with poblano chiles slices, mushrooms and herbs wrapped in plantain leaves and grilled.) --- The consistency of the four cheeses combined was stretchy. If you keep pulling at it, you could probably stretch it pretty far and wide.. It was an interesting texture and when eating it with the tortillas, it gave me a meaty feel as opposed to the more runny nature of most melted cheese that I'm familiar with. I liked it, although I think it needed more flavor.

2. Divorced Chilaquiles (fried tortilla chips topped with salsa verde on one side and a red sauce on the other side) -- This dish was actually a revelation for me. In the past when I've had chilaquiles, the tortillas were mushy to me. I never understood why people liked chilaquiles so much, but these tortilla chips stayed crispy even with sauce poured over them. Now that takes skill and of course, the two sauces were very flavorful.

3. Blue Corn Pozole (from Jalisco) or Cream of Pork Rinds (from Puebla)
-- We had a choice of soups so I opted for the cream of pork rinds just because it seemed so odd to me that I had try it. Let me tell you that the soup definitely tasted like pork rinds and since I happen to love pork rinds, I made a good choice.

4. Red Enchiladas (from Jalisco)
(filled with cotija cheese, smothered with a red sauce) -- The tortillas were cooked just right, not too hard around the edges that happens when it's overcooked. The red sauce, which I found out is made of simply tomato and cascabel chile, combined with the slight saltiness of the cotija cheese was in complete flavor harmony, which gave this dish a definite yum factor.

5. Cauliflowe
r Cakes(from Zacatecas) (smothered with a red mild sauce) -- The cauliflower cakes was actually one of my favorite dishes. Cauliflower in itself is a pretty bland vegetable, but I actually think they added some spices to this vegetable before dipping it into an egg batter and than deep frying it and with the addition of the sauce, this cauliflower certainly was no longer a wallflower.

6. Traditional Mole Poblano with Chicken (from Puebla) -- I can't say enough good things about this mole sauce. Made out of 46 different ingredients, the sauce rocked my world. Even when the chicken was gone, I grabbed tortillas and was mopping it with that so that I can continue to experience its greatness.

7. Conquista Plate (from Oaxaca)
(thin steak over grilled cactus; Oaxaca cheese, chile guajillo sauce served with white rice) -- I have to say that this was my least favorite dish. The combo of the cheese, the meat, which seemed a little tough to me and the cactus didn't appeal to me at all. Like all sauces at La Casita, the chile guajillo was wonderful, but that was the only part of the dish that I liked.

8. (2) Fish Dishes
-- We actually had two substitutions for what would have been the chili en nogada and instead got two different fish dishes. One of them had this very tasty chipotle sauce that was just out of this world. The other fish dish seemed blander to me, even though it was cooked with garlic, onions and green peppers.

9. Dessert: Guayabas Con Compope (a La Casita Original)
(stewed guava in a Mexican eggnog liquor) - This dessert was fantastic. I love guavas and eggnog and to somehow have both of them combined was a win-win for me. I don't even know how to describe how it tasted. Tart-sweet is what comes to mind.

10. Dulce de Jicama (a La Casita Original) (candied jicama with cinnamon in a creamy sauce) - While at the Alameda Swap Meet, the Chefs mentioned candied jicama as a dessert and somehow the concept seemed kind of odd to me, but after experiencing it in person, it definitely works. This dessert reminds of me rice pudding but instead of rice, you get the crunchy sweetness of the jicama.

Overall, our adventure with Chefs Ramiro and Jaime, both at the Alameda Swap Meet and than lunch at their wonderful restaurant was just truly amazing and even with the scorching weather both at the swap meet and at the restaurant, since their air conditioning wasn't working, I would not trade this experience at all and in fact, would definitely try to plan a repeat sometime in the future.
By the way, the items described are on their regular menu, so definitely check out La Casita Mexicana whenever you get a chance.

To see all the pics, click here!

Alameda Swap Meet

4501 S Alameda St
Los Angeles, CA 90058
(323) 233-2764

La Casita Mexicana
4030 East Gage Ave.
Bell, CA 90201
(323) 773 - 1898