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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Oaxacan Journey

Remembrance of Restaurants Past Dept: Casa Oaxaca was a charming little eatery close to Albany’s downtown, a place that never achieved the crticial mass of customers despite Metroland’s best efforts to promote it. The glut of Moe’s and Chipotle outlets ensures that a majority won’t look beyond the pre-fab to find the authentic.


“PEOPLE ASK ME WHAT I RECOMMEND,” says Casa Oaxaca co-owner James Santaski. “I tell them to stay on the right-hand side of the menu.” On the left are “north of the border favorites” – gringo food, the burgers, wraps and such. On the right: items that seem initially familiar, items like tacos, tostadas and tamales, until the ingredients and preparation reveal more complexity than usual. And by usual, I mean as presented in the Americanized version of Mexican restaurants that have become the norm.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The only precedent we’ve had for this cuisine came one of the previous tenants of this space, La Familia. That restaurant was a labor of love for hard-working Francisco Vazquez, who, in one of life’s comic ironies, also worked for Fresno’s at the time. Both places closed, so when Santaski and his partner, Fransisca Vidal, bought the restaurant, they were able to hire Vazquez and his wife to oversee the kitchen.

That’s why the current menu will look familiar to Familia fans. Which also means we once again have recipes featuring rich, dark mole, sauce made from Oaxacan chocolate that’s taken in a flavor direction in which sweetness isn’t a significant factor. A palate-filling complexity takes over instead and, when combined with a simple chicken breast sauté, you dine on a dish that’s sui generis – certainly without precedent in roadside America’s menus.

It is, in fact, pollo con mole ($9.50), and the sauce includes flavors of huajillo chiles and avocado leaves, imparting enough spice heat to make the flavor journey memorable without being distracting.

But you know from the moment a basket of tortilla chips hits your table that something different goes on here. Homemade chips are fatter and, to my mouth, crunchier than the store-bought stuff, and when the salsa is fresh, no commercial product can touch it. Order a side dish of guacamole ($1.50), an avocado purée that contrasts with the salsa’s rough-chopped nature, and you can glory in even more of the real thing.

You won’t be distracted by ambiance. Casa Oaxaca sits in a small corner location on Madison Ave. just down the hill from the Empire State Plaza. A take-out counter is your first stop inside, behind which is a blackboard listing daily specials. The L-shaped room beyond has fewer than a dozen tables, tables as plain as the ceiling and walls, livened by posters and other ornaments that have an added-on air.

But Santaski was infectiously welcoming when I arrived for dinner, generous with his time and information as I awaited the rest of my party. That’s when I learned that he is an American kid with a Mexican mom, who developed a love for the cuisine both at home and during family visits across the border.

He went into the restaurant business, spending several years at Café Italia, among other local venues, so the Casa Oaxaca menu adds an extra sense of coming home.

You can ease into hard-core Mexican fare with the north-of-the-border burritos, combining chicken or beef with lettuce, tomato and cheese ($7 range). An improbably NAFTA-esque combo of fried chicken, Colby cheese and Caesar dressing shows how far such concepts can be taken.

After exploring the standard burger ($5), gussy it up with bacon, onions, mushrooms and avocado slices ($7); a Texas-style quesadilla grande ($8.60) puts steak or chicken in the tortilla sandwich.

But that’s not why you’re here. You want a hit of that tasty Oaxacan cheese, in the hefty vehicle of a chimichanga ($9.75), perhaps. This is what’s commonly termed a burrito: a big flour tortilla wrapped around your choice of steak or chicken (both boast marinade-enhanced flavors) and an oozing layer of the abovementioned cheese, which boasts a comforting thickness of texture. And veggies, and green salsa, and sides of rice and beans.

Sounds familiar, sure, but well-dispatched flavor components inform these items with an extra robustness. This characterized the tostadas we sampled, which are $2.75 apiece for the crispy, flat tortillas on which lettuce, bean and avocado mounds are built. Excellent chorizo, a spicy sausage, is one of the available meats, with our old friends chicken or beef also available, and you can indulge in a platter of all three, as we did, for a mere eight bucks.

Quesadillas, made familiar through their use as bland bar food, are revived here with the addition of Oaxacan cheese and sprigs of epazote (three for $7.50) – or try them with mashed potatoes and chorizo (three for $9). When I return, it will be to try the tamales, corn meal stuffed with mole and chicken, steamed in corn husks or banana leaves (the latter is traditionally Oaxacan), priced under $3 apiece and even cheaper as a threesome.

I’d kill to have a place like this down the street from me at lunchtime. There’s enough variety to keep it interesting, even though, Santaski assures me, many customers wouldn’t think of ordering anything but a particular favorite two or three times a week.

Whatever Casa Oaxaca lacks in decor is more than achieved in its food and friendliness; add to that the easygoing pricing and you can be assured of enjoying yourself.

Casa Oaxaca, 54 Philip St. (at Madison Ave.), Albany, 433-xxxx. Serving Tue-Fri 11-8, Sat-Sun 4-8. AE, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 24 January 2008

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