On a Wednesday evening in Oaxaca City the opening amuse bouche of El Destilado’s generously portioned, unpredictable tasting menu was set down on the restaurant’s “chef’s table” – essentially a bar top affording a view of the establishment’s cramped kitchen.
The introductory primer – or “amuse bouche,” to use the worn out Frenchified terminology sprinkled throughout the fine dining lexicon – consisted of a little dollhouse-like ensemble consisting of a “sopa bebe” (literally, baby soup, a chawan mushi-esque mixture of egg yolk, smoked and pickled onion and parmesan tucked neatly into a beige egg shell) and a tiny black corn quesadilla. Next to it stood a boozy cocktail of mescal, Strega (a bright yellow, anise flavored Italian liqueur) and chocolate bitters.
Three days earlier on Sunday, the opening salvo of El Destilado chef and co-owner Julio Aguilera’s unofficial food tour of Oaxaca – generously conducted, I enjoyed thinking, for my benefit over several days and beginning about 30 minutes after my arrival by plane from Guadalajara - began with assorted meats piled higgledy piggledy at BBQ Lety, one of several stalls lining both sides of a narrow walkway in a smoke-choked section of the city’s November 16 market called Pasillo Ahumado (smoky hallway, essentially). As we forked animal matter and spooned a variety of colorful garnished onto characteristically large Oaxaca-style tortillas, smoke from tumescent, bright red chorizo and an anatomical catch-all of meat cuts created an atmosphere heavy with the merry stench of carbonizing flesh and charred wood.
It was a fitting introduction to Mexico’s “It” region, a place where smoke seems to work its way into nearly every facet of life and perfume every nook and cranny with what, at least for me, is the odor of celebration and recreation. Whether or not Julio, who I met several years ago through a mutual friend in San Francisco’s restaurant industry, had made the Pasillo Ahumado our first stop deliberately isn’t known, but given the thoughtfulness evinced by his cooking at El Destilado it’s fair to suspect he had.
Meal summarily dispatched, I wiped my lips with a paper napkin, and rose to follow Julio as he burrowed back through the indoor market’s bowels – a blur of fried grasshoppers (chapulines) and knock off Adidas – and out the other side onto the Zocalo, Oaxaca’s large public square. From there we walked another handful of blocks to cathedral-adjacent El Destilado, where we repaired to the restaurant’s roof for a short “herbal” siesta after Julio checked in with his two young sous chefs Valerie (from Germany) and Jake (Atlanta-born).