Azucena Zapoteca - San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca
Azucena Zapoteca is a fabulous, not so little restaurant on the highway between Oaxaca City and Ocotlan. Opened in 2004, it is the brain child and labor of love of Jacobo and Maria Angeles and has gotten progressively better each time I've eaten there. Jacobo is a wood carver from the village of San Martin Tilcajete and is an acknowledged Grand Master at his craft. Maria is a master painter and wonderful cook. Together they've become a power couple promoting not only they're work, but that of their neighbors, other village carvers, and the crafts of other Mexican states.
The road to San Martin Tilcajete is part of a "T" intersection off the main road between Oaxaca City and Ocotlan. And trust me when I say, you can't miss it. There is a ginormous freeway sign over the road announcing the turn off, and the restaurant is a large complex on the left side of the road (if driving from Oaxaca City to Ocotlan) a few hundred feet past the overhead freeway sign. As you drive into the parking lot, you'll notice a large, not to be missed, gift shop to the right, a tented area to your left with local artesans selling their crafts and a bright red agua fresca wagon at that base of the steps leading into the restaurant. Seating is inside or outside, and if the weather is nice, outside is always preferable as there is usually a breeze, even on the swelteringly hot days of the dry season.
Once seated and settled in, the staff usually comes around and offers a small, complimentary, serving of mescal to sip on while reviewing the surprisingly large menu. Azucena Zapoteca open for breakfast and offers 2 pages of breakfast options from the tried and try fruit and yogurt, and egg dishes to less traditional fare. But since most people come for comida, the midday meal, that makes up the bulk of the menu.
The tlayuda here is the traditional oversized tortilla that isn't pressed until order, then baked on the comal in the open air grill area. It can be ordered with or without meat, but it will always come with well seaoned and perfectly smooth black beans, quesillo, that wonderfully flavorful melting cheese of Oaxaca, and usually some cotija or queso fresco crumbled in for good measure. Cecina, tasajo, chicken and, if I recall correctly, beef can be added if desired. Because tlayudas are typically large, they make a great appetizer for a table to share.
Another tasty snack are the memlitas. Hot off the grill, they are fresh, oblong tortillas dabbed with that most wonderful and seductive of fats, asiento...those teeny, tiny, dark brown crumbs and bits at the bottom of the pot after lard has been rendered and poured off. Topped off with that great black bean puree and more crumbled queso fresco, all they need is a spoonful or two of the mildly hot table salsa. They come 3 to an order and are another great appetizer to share.
The menu does change every so often, and I can't guarantee that these will still be on the menu as they may have been a dish for Lent. But if the Bocaditos de Papa are on the menu, do not hesitate...order them. 3 potato croquettes about the size of the palm of a hand are offered up with a good salsa, pico de gallo and guacamole. There may be 3 to an order, but the person ordering it may not be so willing to share as they are sublimely good. Crunchy exterior, creamy interior and virtually greaseless, and at $55 pesos (about $4.50) they're quite a good bargain.
The entree menu offers the usual Oaxacan suspects, a quite respectable year round version of chiles en nogada, a short selection of Zapotec specialties and a few items that are only offered a couple times a week. The mole negro and coloradito are both very good renditions. The estofada was deemed good but a bit too vinegary. The pescado frito, fried fish, was spectacular. Fresh, tender and greaseless the large filete came with a salad of thin, curly straws of raw carrot, jicama and beet.
Three items from the Zapotec Specialties page of the menu are worth some investigation. Azucena Zapoteca is a longtime favorite and the restaurants' signature dish. A big squash bloosom is stuffed with a big hunk of quesillo and strips of local vegetables, then dipped in a capeado batter (same thing that's used for chile relleno), lightly fried, served on a pool of tomatillo sauce and topped with a ladle of mole negro and finished with fresh squash bloosom petals and a squiggle of crema. It is a visually stunning dish, but equally delicious to eat.
Pajarito Zapoteca and Alcatraz Zapoteca are 2 versions of the same dish. Pajarito is tasajo wrapped around quesillo and chiles, while the Alcatraz is cecina wrapped around quesillo and chiles. Both come in the same pool of tomatillo sauce that the Azucena Zapoteca does, as well as the same mole capper.
One of the Sunday specials are the Costillas al Horno, oven baked pork ribs. Oh, but what ribs they are!! Meaty ribs are seasoned lightly with an adobo then wrapped with avocado and banana leaves, the leaves said to absorb the excess pork fat essentially wicking it away from the meat. The horno is a wood fired, adobe oven and gives new meaning to the "low and slow" cooking process. The ribs go into it early in the morning and dont' come out until they've reached the fall off the bone tender stage 5 or 6 hours later. They come with some onions that have clearly been roasted with the meat, carrots, an incidiarily hot roasted chile de agua and that ubiquitous black bean puree. The plate is garnished with chepil the distinctive Oaxacan herb so that it can be tucked into tortillas along with the meat for tasty little tacos.
I was at Azucena Zapoteca on Good Friday as well as on Easter Sunday. I've eaten there before on other trips to Oaxaca and this restaurant just keeps getting better and better. The food is good, most of it locally grown and sourced. The service is good, the staff friendly and well trained. They do their best to make you feel welcome and really want you to like their food, which I do very much.
Friday is market day in Ocotlan, and it is a good market, definitely worth the trek out there. Azucena Zapoteca is about midway between Oaxaca City and Ocotlan and a natural stopping place. Do stop, do check out the gift shop (and the very clean bathrooms <gg>) and do stop and enjoy some of the most surprisingly good food in the Oaxaca area.