About a million years ago — or maybe 25 — a 20-something me in a hot South Carolina kitchen was struggling to make chiles en nogada, a new and daunting undertaking inspired by Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, which I’d read not long after the publication of the English translation in 1992. I’d been a fan of magical realism since plowing through One Hundred Years of Solitude in my late teens, but this was my first exposure to the idea of the magical qualities of food — dishes so powerful and prepared with such feeling they could induce tears of longing over lost love or cause a young woman to leave her family and ride off with one of Pancho Villa’s men.
Whether you believe in magic or you don’t, something very akin to it is going on in the kitchen at Fiesta Oaxaca, where chile en nogada is on the menu. This delightfully colorful Mexican restaurant occupies a space on Palace Avenue that’s had a spotty history recently, with troubled former tenants like Bobbito’s and the Bad Ass Sandwich Co.
The sunny disposition of chef Alberto Lopez — who grew up in Oaxaca — is quite apparent when he stops by your table at the end of your meal. But you’ll be familiar with it sooner than that, since it comes through loud and clear in the dining room décor — with tables and chairs painted vibrant hues, a rainbow of papel picados spanning the ceiling, and palapa-inspired awnings over the windows — and in the demeanor of the always-cheerful (if sometimes overwhelmed) staff. Enthusiasm is apparent in the food, too — from the smooth, bright red and green salsas and the shockingly fresh and flavorful guacamole that arrive with a basket of chips ($9) to a stunningly rich and very pretty tres leches cake ($7) that ups the ante by adding mocha to the mix. You won’t want to stop eating any of it.
If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive just as the chips have been made. The tortillas themselves are made in-house, so the chips cut from them are crunchy, substantial, slightly sweet, and sunny gold: They’re an otherworldly delight if they arrive hot and glistening right out of the frying oil, when you can dust them liberally with salt if that’s your wont (as it certainly is mine). Lopez also dropped a hint that he’s working on additional salsas — mango and pineapple — that sound perfect for summer, as does the Mexican beer and house-made sangria that should arrive not long after the restaurant secures its beer and wine license.
Familiar Mexican favorites are here — burritos for breakfast and lunch, tacos stuffed with a wide variety of fillings (al pastor, chicken tinga, pibil, fish, and a tofu-veggie blend, 3 for $10), tortas, and quesadillas slaked in red and green sauces. We chose a quesadilla with huitlacoche ($10), which has earthy, mushroom-like qualities (and, apparently, high levels of protein). Huitlacoche often goes by the unfortunate name of “corn smut,” but “corn truffle” is much more romantic and helpful. What does “smut” taste like, anyway?
Like me, you may have had the famous skinny hot tamales in or around the Mississippi Delta or have sampled nearly every tamale on offer in Santa Fe, but the tamale ($11) we had at Fiesta Oaxaca was another animal entirely, a giant masa monster lounging on a deep-green pozole leaf bed, topped with chicken, slathered with a rust-red picadillo sauce (made with tomato, garlic, onion, olives, capers, and raisins), and accompanied by a classic small salad of chopped lettuce and diced tomato.
Influences from parts of Mexico other than Oaxaca make their way into the kitchen, too, like the Veracruzan chilpachole de mariscos ($12). The brothy base is tinged by what it’s studded with — tomato, carrot, and herbs — and has chipotle’s warming heat. At the center of that salty sea is a rocky island of plump shrimp and sweet, flaky fish boulders. The whole affair feels like a healing potion: seafood soup for the soul. Also on the lighter side is a clean, sprightly salad of mixed lettuces, spring-green avocado, strips of vegetal nopal cactus, and white cubes and batons of crisp, refreshing jicama ($9). On the other end of the spectrum are the ultra-rich enchiladas suizas ($13) — three tortillas rolled around chicken and luxuriant Mexican crema and then smothered with a light-green tomatillo sauce and Oaxaca cheese.
But the main event here is the mole. The menu contains offers four versions — which might seem excessive if Oaxaca weren’t typically known as “the land of seven moles.” Amarillo and verde make appearances — served with pork and chicken, respectively. Or there’s Lopez’s innovative tamarindo ($13), which has a dark hue that belies its delightfully tart and bright flavor with a pleasant ancho- and guajillo-rooted heat; it’s a perfect counterpoint for the fall-apart-tender roasted pork beneath it. Lopez also shares his family’s mole negro ($14) — a concoction known to vary from familia to familia, with each tía or abuelo applying personal proportions, twists, and touches. Appropriately, Fiesta Oaxaca serves its heady, rich sauce atop lean meat — chicken breast — and this pitch-black potion feels like a map of the Mexican countryside unfolding on your tongue, revealing the nuttiness of sesame, the bittersweet depth of cocoa, the mild heat of peppers, the natural sweetness of plantain, the acidity of tomato, and nuances of other flavors. Every mole plate includes a small green salad, a globelike scoop of bronzed-yellow rice, and black beans topped with a flurry of snow-white crumbly Oaxaca cheese.
And then the chile en nogada ($17) arrives, a pine-green poblano stuffed almost beyond capacity with ground pork and beef infused with fruit (the menu cites apple, pear, peach, and raisins). Lightly battered and fried, it’s blanketed in a beautiful velvety white almond-walnut sauce and scattered with jewel-like pomegranate seeds and a few feathery leaves of cilantro. My friend Amanda, who makes regular trips to Oaxaca with her family and whose mother has spent years mastering this dish for dinner parties, pronounced it “legit.”
In Like Water for Chocolate, the chiles en nogada served at a wedding banquet inspire guests to pair up, run off, and make whoopee in the nearest discreet locale, though Esquivel does mention the custom of “a chile in nut sauce left sitting on a platter out of etiquette, for not wanting to look greedy.” I doubt any of the dishes at Fiesta Oaxaca will encourage magical unmannerly behavior, but when it comes to etiquette, the diners at your table will be clamoring to break the rules, because leaving even one bite behind is the last thing they’ll want to do. ◀