Post-modern rustic: Yuban pays homage to Oaxacan cooking
Mexico City is the center and sum of the many cultures that make up this great republic. From Sonora to Chiapas, everyone is well represented here. And so is their food. Regional restaurants dot the city, especially those that highlight a specific dish: barbacoa from Hidalgo or pozole from Guerrero. Oaxacan cooking is perhaps the most talked about in and out of the country, but a highly skilled and artisanal interpretation of it has eluded us – until now. Yuban, which opened its doors mid-year, is doing just that, i.e. artfully reproducing traditional recipes with a contemporary respect for integrity and quality. It’s a welcome postmodern return to what makes our cuisine great. Recipes have been collated from cooks, chefs and grandma herself, wisely reinterpreted, more precisely, carefully and painstakingly prepared so as to conserve flavors, textures, colors and aromas – the essence - of the original, without losing even a modicum of soul. The restaurant’s subtitle, comida casera Zapoteca, says it all – not only is the food Oaxacan, it is specifically oriented to the mountainous Sierra, and fish doesn’t appear on the menu. And the idea is to reproduce dishes cooked in the home.
Chef Paloma Ortiz is young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. She’s also of Oaxacan descent and has rescued some of the recipes from her own family archives. After the requisite institute training she did field work in the Sierra, studiously absorbing the wisdom of any cook or mayora willing to share it. Her array of, at present, six moles is nothing short of spectacular. Three are light but highly complex, masa-thickened sauces. The chef corrects the common definition of moles as necessarily being nut or seed thickened. She explains, “The word mole, after all, comes from “mulli” which has a broad meaning, it’s more a matter of texture that differentiates moles from sauces.” The mole verde, “is basically an herb sauce”, according to the chef. The Minty perfume of hoja santa permeates but doesn’t dominate; it is a winner – subtly aromatic, lightly creamy and perfectly balanced.
A dark, smoky chichilo is the chef’s favorite. “It’s of pre-hispanic origin, the grandfather of the more elaborate and European influenced moles negros and rojos.” Here, it’s served with guajalote – turkey – and features the burnt – not toasted but burnt- seeds of the chilhuacle, that hard-to-get dry chili from the south. Most ingredients, even criollo (native) corn for tortillas is brought in from local Oaxacan sources, while fresh ingredients are local and organic, many from the nearby chinampas of Xochimilco.
Three more familiar moles, each offered with an appropriate accompaniment, are also on the menu. The gently sweet rojo, containing several chilies, tomato, cumin and clove is fragrant and caresses the palate - delicious. Estofado, a chile-less variation of mole almendrado, is served with a helping of juicy roast venison steak, gives off an air of easy simplicity: evident amongst its 30-something ingredients are the almonds, olives, cumin and allspice – it is truly mestizo in character, a blend of indigenous and Spanish traditions. The dish is nicely complement by a bowl of tart pickled vegetables. The negro itself is the most similar to the familiar mole poblano, redolent of chocolate and smoky chili.
El Habenerito, at the corner of Coahuila & Manzanillo in Roma, is a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant that offers some of the best Yucatecan food in town. Try their tacos of cochinita pibil with an
array of fiery salsas.