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).
Surrounded by potted edible plants and taking in a view which includes the aforementioned house of worship, one of Oaxaca’s more bold chefs – one who both embraces and flouts Mexican culinary tradition - filled me in on why he cooks the way he does.
In a word, “San Francisco,” and how the city’s cultural oleo creates palettes which are easily bored by – and resent the restrictions of – a strict adherence to tradition.
“What we do isn’t really Mexican,” said Aguilera between puffs. “Of course, it has that influence. But I cooked in S.F., so I’m always going to cook that way.”
It was in a culinary pressure cooker of a three-star Michelin San Francisco restaurant called Saison – doing brisk business in a city known for its exacting food standards – that Aguilera first met El Destilado co-owner Joseph Gilbert, who runs the restaurant’s bar program.
A few years ago, Joseph and third partner Jason Cox, who is in charge of “Cinco Sentidos,” the restaurant’s extensive line of lovingly curated mescals, went to Oaxaca to geek out on agave and decided to open a restaurant in the state’s capital. Aguilera, a known quantity whose Mexican food credentials were spotless, was soon ensconced as chef. But having already done the “traditional” thing to death in S.F. restaurants like La Urbana and La Mescaleria – where he consulted during their opening – he decided to eschew the area restaurants’ tendency to hew closely to the tried-and-true.
If you needed any evidence of Aguilera’s delight in thumbing his nose at local tradition and his orientation toward points international, it’d be amply provided by the “tartar” which arrived after our amuse bouche was cleared away. This tartar was made not with chopped meat, but rather a blend of fermented and fresh tomatoes, mixed with cilantro flower, and cheese from San Cristobal, Chiapas. Resting upon this bright red disk were chicharrones of rice for scooping.
Another idiosyncratic culinary backhand serve was the octopus cooked in its own ink, soy, honey, citrus, habanero and chile powder. The dish’s presentation was positively deranged, like the aftermath of some twisted aquatic murder scene: one large, tar-colored tentacle coiled in the center of a large plate, everything splattered liberally with flavorsome orange and black liquids.
Tradition however, is far from Aguilera’s enemy, which he demonstrated Monday morning, two days before our tasting menu experience at El Destilado. Still wiping sleep from my eyes at 11 a.m. (some former bartender habits never die), the chef and I, plus friend Rebecca, sat at a long wooden table in the sprawling backyard of Ita Noni, a restaurant 20 minutes by foot from the town Zocalo. There we waited for a cast-iron anchor’s worth of corn meal-rich savory treats – cooked primarily on several hot comales – to arrive. In the meantime, we sipped from cinnamon-flavored cafe de olla, aqua frescos and tascalate, a drink hitherto unknown to me consisting of cacao, anatto seed and, naturally, corn.
“Ita Noni,” I found out shortly from Aguilera’s short history of the restaurant (opened, he reckoned, around 2008-9), means “House of Corn.” Their title is a statement of intent, one thoroughly manifested in our breakfast’s fare, which consisted of several thick chicharron-stuffed masa triangles known as tetelas, a rajas tomal and one of costilla, and a couple of memelitas, which resemble sopes (thick disks of masa topped with a choice of ingredients) but thinner, and in this case topped with beans, crumbly white cheese and fiery ground pork.
Later that day – and on into the night – the posh versus “peasant” pendulum would swing back in favor of the former in the shape of two restaurants: Boulenc, a bakery/restaurant constantly filled with an ethnic oleo of the well-heeled where I ate a very late lunch, and Origen, whose kitchen is run by a chef trained, like Aguilera, in San Francisco.
But for descriptions of those and other meals enjoyed during my five-day stay in Oaxaca City – plus more saliva-pumping creativity from the El Destilado tasting menu – stay tuned for part two of this exploration of one chef’s comestible preferences and pulsating imagination.