Just off the red-eye overnight bus from Mexico City (“Dee Efe’” to those in the know) we tumbled blearily from the cab and attempted to focus on something that would give away the entrance to the Casa Oaxaca hotel. A tiny porcelain plaque was spotted, a locked door rattled, and a doorbell rung – it was barely 6am. Despite the unsociable hour we were met by a chirpy bellhop and ushered into a secluded courtyard: A pristine, whitewashed refuge dotted with potted cacti and a liberal spattered of artwork.
I lived in Mexico for a spell, almost 20 (Jesus!) years ago, and it was fair to say that the food was mostly terrible
Oaxaca (“wahaca” to everyone now, thanks to the ubiquitous eatery) has always been synonymous with Mexican cooking. I lived in Mexico for a spell, almost 20 (Jesus!) years ago, and it was fair to say that the food was mostly terrible. That was apart from the city of Oaxaca – an inexplicable oasis of wonderful cuisine. It was as if all the good food from the rest of the country had been parachuted into a single repository. In all fairness, the nation’s gastronomy has come along leaps and bounds since then (even making it on to UNESCO’s bizarrely-named list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010). The question was, had Oaxaca managed to remain ahead of the game?
Although my stomach juices still were still sloshing about from seven hours of twisting mountain road, I jumped in feet first and asked the waiter – a stiff, rather aloof gentleman – for the classic huevos rancheros breakfast. Perfectly poached eggs soon arrived floating in a rich salty lava of chili salsa, a note of sweet basil chiming with the unmistakable hit of limestone from nixtamalized corn tortillas (a bit of an acquired taste and one I’ve rarely found outside Mexico). Beans were whole and plump and swimming in thick, earthy gravy. It was all washed it down with freshly squeezed orange juice and a coffee topped with such velvety crema I took it sans dairy. It boded well.
Post-desayuno it was time to take a nose around. Our suite was on the first floor overlooking the courtyard, the fruits from a pomegranate tree almost within arms reach through the cedarwood shuttered windows. Below, the first of the well-heeled, silver-haired couples who made up most the hotel’s clientele were gathering for feeding time, now accompanied by the strains of Bach’s Air on the G String emanating from hidden speakers; a self-conscious and wholly unnecessary stab at fostering a sophisticated ambience. Back in the room a huge wrought iron bed, hexagonal terracotta floors tiles, and whitewashed limestone walls conjured up “rustic-luxe” very nicely. A spacious marble-clad bathroom with Bvlgari products and sunken tub completed the picture.
Casa Oaxaca is also one of only a handful of hotels in town with a swimming pool: heart-shaped and Hockney-esque, in a secluded suntrap of a tropical garden. Bougainvillea framed by ochre red walls chime with piercing blue mountain sky. A white domed temazcal steam bath offers guests the chance to experience a claustrophobic sweating ritual, Aztec style. I stayed by the pool.
Now it would be remiss of me at this juncture not to mention a creeping and unavoidable realisation
It’s the hotel’s eponymous off-site restaurant that has become the yardstick for the city’s cuisine. And Alejandro Ruiz (who has also “curated” menus for the Wahaca chain) is the resident rock-star chef credited with delivering celebrated interpretations of traditional Mexican fare for over a decade.
The feasting at Casa Oaxaca: The Restaurant began with the house salsa and brittle blue-corn tortilla chips, which if you can tell the difference from regular yellow variety you’ve better taste buds than I, though they are pretty.
Service was enthusiastic and borderline intrusive comprising of an effusive head-waiter supported by a slightly bumbling clear-novice.
I was glad, when my starter of quesadilla with corn fungus and fried grasshoppers arrived, that the mood lighting was so low I could barely make out the insects imbedded in a fat taco of gooey Oaxacan cheese. Fried in lime and chili, however, the chapulines were tangy and crunchy and contrasted fabulously with the creamy rubber of the cheese.
Now it would be remiss of me at this juncture not to mention a creeping and unavoidable realisation. One that had been tugging at my shirtsleeve since our arrival this morning; one I had thus far made a studious and concerted effort to ignore. Something in my guts wasn’t right. In fact it was very wrong.
It was obviously a disappointing end
So by the time the main course arrived – slabs of juicy turkey breast slathered in a rich muddy slick of chocolate and spices – I was struggling. While I’m sure it was delicious, I was increasingly forced to focus on keeping it down rather than appreciating what might well be the best-made mole in Mexico.
If I had to finger the culprit, I would point with a degree of certainty to a pair of sweaty tacos I’d hurriedly scoffed down just before boarding at Mexico City bus terminal.
It was obviously a disappointing end to what had begun as a fabulous affirmation of the gastronomic supremacy of Oaxaca, ironically scuppered by street food from the country’s capital.
Rather than endure another interminable bus journey, we’d chosen an alternative mode of transport for our onward voyage. Aerotucán fly tiny single-prop planes that slash trip time to the Pacific coast to a fraction of the 10 hours by road. And my brush with Montezuma’s Revenge? Well, it did at least provide me with a sight that’s sure to stay with me for some time: I was reacquainted with a couple dozen grasshoppers first thing the next morning. Most of them still whole. C
Hotel Casa Oaxaca, Garcia Vigil 407, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca, Mexico
+52 961 514 4173; casaoaxaca.com