“I am tenacious. And I love to eat. I go into the field and see some delectable things
they’re cooking, wild plants perhaps, and think, ‘Oh my God, I have to write about this.’
I just think it’s insatiable curiosity. To me, life is a continuous process of learning.”
As an essayer of the Land of Enchantment’s culinary condition–primarily as it’s expressed by its restaurants–I’ve always marveled at the passion and appetite of Diana Kennedy who built a lifelong career by compiling, publishing and teaching indigenous Mexican recipes. Just as Julia Child reduced the nuances and inflections of French cuisine and culinary techniques for home cooks, Diana introduced home cooks to highly developed, often centuries-old culinary traditions they didn’t even know existed. Emanating largely from indigenous Mesoamerican cultures that predated Columbus, those culinary traditions might have been lost to time were it not for Diana Kennedy who wrote several classic books on authentic Mexican cooking.
A case could easily be made that before Diana Kennedy, much of the fruited plain perceived Mexican food as some homogeneous combo plate brimming with rolled enchiladas topped with a brownish “sauce” just a shade darker than the refried beans on the plate; “Spanish” rice no self-respecting Spaniard would acknowledge; and a droopy, greasy taco all partially buried under shredded and melted cheese glop. Diana Kennedy would not countenance such woefully sad inauthentic interpretations, preferring instead to teach us how to use and appreciate achiote and atole, moles and molcajetes and even chapulines and hormigas.
Diana Kennedy didn’t glean the recipes for her books by frequenting five-star fine-dining restaurants. She traversed deeply-crevassed and muddy backroads throughout Mexico to speak with and learn from home cooks who don’t deviate from long-held ancestral culinary traditions. Among her very favorite regions was the free and sovereign state of Oaxaca which–despite being one of the poorest and most indigenous regions of Mexico–boasts of the most authentic, time-honored and profound foodways in Mexico. Those of us who hold a deep reverence and fascination for Oaxaca consider “Oaxaca al Gusto” her magnus opus, the culmination of her life’s work.
Oaxaca al Gusto is probably appreciated as much for its cultural and anthropological aspects as for its recipes, many of which most home cooks aren’t intrepid enough to attempt–even if they could find the ingredients. This magnificent tome celebrates the staggering variety and uniqueness of Oaxacan cooking, showcasing sui generis varieties of chiles, chocolate and corn. It features home cook recipes for everything from grasshoppers to fungus. Understandably, Diana Kennedy’s masterpiece came immediately to mind when my friend Bill Resnik told me about La Guelaguetza, an Oaxacan restaurant in the Duke City he described simply as “oh, my God!.”
Fittingly, my inaugural visit to La Guelaguetza was with my boss Linda Johansen. Just as Diana Kennedy is widely considered the foremost researcher, teacher, and writer on the regional foods of Mexico, Linda is universally regarded as the doyenne of information technology at the University of New Mexico. Moreover, she is a fellow culinary voluptuary and Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) judge. Like me, she approaches every bite with a spirit of discernment and appreciation. It’s very rare that I have the opportunity to break bread with someone as attuned to the nuances and subtleties of ingredients and preparation techniques as Linda is. Dining with her would prove to be a great treat and learning experience.
Several years ago, Linda visited central Mexico and became so besotted of the seven moles of Oaxaca that for months thereafter, she experimented obsessively with the preparation of mole, determined to concoct an authentic and traditional version comparable to what she enjoyed in Mexico. That’s a formidable challenge even for experienced chefs. Not only is mole a time-consuming and labor-intensive endeavor, the compilation of ingredients itself can intimidate and even dissuade those of us not quite as determined as Linda. Mole, a term whose genesis comes from the Nahautle word “molli” which means “sauce” or “mix” is a complex dish made from anywhere from twenty ingredients (mole Poblano) to more than thirty (some Oaxacan moles).
In Oaxaca, you might expect to stride into a restaurant under a canopy of lush bougainvillea the shade of Scarlett O Hara, but Albuquerque’s sole Oaxacan restaurant shares the same stucco-hued paradigm as many Due City dining establishments. In other words, it’s fairly nondescript. La Guelaguetza sits in a space next door to a small bodega and its storefront signage is a confusion of the restaurant’s name and imagery reminiscent of the state of Oaxaca. La Guelaguetza is located on Old Coors not quite halfway between Bridge Blvd. and Central Avenue.
Step inside and you’ll quickly espy a colorful array of Mexican papel picado banners (traditional folk art banners resembling decorative handkerchiefs) hanging from the ceiling. Walls are festooned with bowtie-shaped serapes and assorted bric-a-brac. Booth seating flanks north and south walls while the center of the restaurant is mostly four-top seating which is more functional than it is comfortable. Two sensory experiences emanate from the kitchen. One is the cacophonous din of festive Mexican music. Though it’s not streamed throughout the premises, it’s certainly discernible. The other, more pleasing sensory experience, is the olfactory-arousing aromas of magnificent foods.
We joked with our server that the reason the music from the kitchen was so loud was because the Salazar brothers who own and operate the restaurant were back there swearing at each other. We met two of the brothers, both as genial and convivial as possible. Their hospitality and warmth made us feel like welcome guests at their home. When they discovered that both Linda and I speak Spanish (Linda like a native), they answered all our questions with alacrity. Pride in their homeland was evident. So was their knowledge of Oaxacan culinary techniques, ingredients and recipes.
21 November 2019: Shortly after we were seated, our server ferried a small rectangular plate to our table. Ladled onto the plate were three moles: mole picoso, a piquant mole not for the meek of taste bud; mole negro, a smoky-sweet chili-chocolate sauce the color of dried prunes; and mole coloradito which showcases dried red chiles. Warm totopos (triangular-shaped corn tortilla chips) were served with the mole sampler. Contrary to our expectations, the totopos were soft and chewy, not crisp and crunchy. Still, they proved an effective vehicle for dipping into the moles.
21 November 2019: Our server also brought to our table a basket of housemade potato chips which brought to mind the “bet you can’t eat just one” challenge from 1983 commercial for Lays potato chips. Thin, crispy “mini me” versions of those chips from the Lays commercial, these chips are lightly sprinkled with a mild chile. They invite scooping up the moles a little at a time, a process which suited both Linda and I very well. When she chided me for spilling a drop of mole on the table, I used my finger to sop it up then licked off that one drop. That’s how highly we esteemed our sampler.
Throughout our meal I joked with our server about adding a few chapulines (grasshoppers) and hormigas (ants) to everything he was ferrying to our table, much to Linda’s consternation. As broad-minded as any epicure I know, my intrepid boss could not be talked into sampling either. Of course, that’s the case with most visitors to Oaxaca where restaurants often serve them as “botanas” (a sort of pre-meal snack). When Luciano Salazar explained that the most tasty chapulines are harvested early in the rainy season when they’re small and feed on alfalfa, Linda astutely observed that even chapulines have a terroir.
Should the terms “gross” and “yuck” enter your mind after reading about chapulines and especially after seeing the five herbaceous leaf jumpers on the ramekin pictured above, your appetite might be mollified if you read how they’re prepared and served. Chapulines are seasoned with a mojo, a mixture of garlic, lime juice and salt crushed together in a molcajete (a seasoned stone mortar meticulously carved out of a single rock of vesicular basalt) then fried crisp in a little oil. By this point you’re either antsy to try them or you don’t want to learn more. Not even if I tell you that they’re nutritious and contain a high proportion of proteins and amino acids.
21 November 2019: Maybe this paragraph should also come with a cautionary warning. That’s because in addition to chapulines, our server brought us a small ramekin of hormigas (ants). Ants are considered a delicacy in Oaxaca and not just because they have a protein level similar to meat (of course it takes an entire ant colony to make a full meal). In restaurants and homes throughout Oaxaca, ants are toasted on a comal and mixed on a molcajete with chile de arbol, lime and raw garlic. I wouldn’t go far out of my way to have hormigas again, but certainly wouldn’t flick them off my plate.
In recent visits to new Mexican (as opposed to New Mexican) restaurants in the Duke City, I’ve been introduced to dishes heretofore unsampled by my learned lips. Guaca Guaca Tacos & Beer introduced me to such Sonoran specialties as momias, caramelos and Guaca dogs. La Guelaguetza’s menu also has a number of dishes I’d never before tried as well as many familiar items common to other Mexican states. It surprised me to see so many mariscos options including such favorites as camarones aguachile, tostadas de ceviche and mojarra frita.
When she came upon the pellizcadas, Linda grew visibly excited. She fondly recalled having enjoyed them during her visits to Mexico and was eager for me to try them. It didn’t dawn on me until later that the term “pellizcadas” might have its genesis in the Spanish word for “pinching,” something I experienced frequently before corporal punishment was banned in schools. Pellizcadas are fried masa cakes with a lip “pinched” around its edge and some type of topping nestled in the middle. Pellizcadas are very similar to, but smaller than sopes.
21 November 2019: One of the two pellizcadas we shared was made with carne desebrada, shredded brisket drizzled in Mexican crema and topped with a smear of beans, queso fresco, cilantro, red onion and your choice of salsa verde or salsa roja (or both). Despite being crisp and firm, the masa is moist and redolent with the inimitable flavor of manteca (pork fat). The carne desebrada was also moist and flavorful with some edges caramelized and crispy. After discovering our shared appreciation for both Mexican crema and crème fraîche as well as our mutual disdain for whipped cream, Linda amazed me by actually knowing the differences between Mexican crema and crème fraîche (crema is runnier, thinner, and slightly sweeter than both crème fraîche and sour cream).
21 November 2019: Although the menu indicated our second pellizcada was made with chorizo, Luciano explained that the menu was in error. Instead of chorizo,the pellizcada was made with longoniza, a ground pork sausage both similar and dissimilar to chorizo. The primary difference between longoniza and chorizo is the spice mix with which the sausage is made. This spice mix varies depending on the region in which the longoniza is made. Though neither of us had an “aha, longoniza” epiphany, to our credit we didn’t think we were having chorizo.
21 November 2019: Eight tacos grace the menu: carne asada (grilled beef), chorizo (pork sausage), lengua (beef tongue), buche (pork stomach), al pastor (in the style of the shepherd), desebrada (shredded brisket), barbacoa (pit-cooked beef), and on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, tripitas (crisply fried pork intestines). A favorite for both of us is al pastor. In Mexico City, the meat (pork marinated in a mixture made up of vinegar, a variety of chiles, and other herbs and spices) for al pastor is cooked on a vertical much like shawarma. The meat is then shaved or cut from the spit at the point of serving. Spit-style cooking of taco meat is uncommon outside Mexico, but when done correctly the effect and flavor is similar.
La Gueleguetza’s tacos al pastor (a single corn tortilla, cubed pork, cilantro, red onions, pineapple and a squeeze of lime) could pass for spit cooked pork and you don’t even have to close your eyes to imagine that’s how they’re prepared. The contrasting flavors of savory, marinated pork and sweet pineapple work so well we gave pause to reflect on the genius who first paired pork and pineapple (although on pizza, this is a divisive coupling). Tender red onions grilled until they start to caramelize and the fresh, invigorating flavor of cilantro lend additional complementary contrast. Then there’s the squeeze of lime, just enough to cut the sweetness of the pineapple. These are some of the best tacos al pastor you’ll have north of the border.
In discussing the ascendancy of Oaxaca as a travel and culinary destination, we mentioned to Luciano that Oaxaca is widely known as the “land of seven moles.” “Eight moles,” he corrected us. We rattled off the seven we knew–Negro, Rojo, Coloradito, Amarillo, Verde, Chichilo and Manchamantel. The eighth, he explained, is mole blanco, a thickened sauce prepared with a mixture of light-colored ingredients. It’s a mole not even Diana Kennedy acknowledged, at least according to Serious Eats: “There are the seven moles of Oaxaca—and then there is mole blanco. Absent even from Diana Kennedy’s exhaustive culinary ethnography Oaxaca Al Gusto, this mole, also known as mole de novia, is a virtual unknown compared to its sister dishes.”
21 November 2019: Mole blanco is not currently on La Gueleguetza’s menu, but the three moles which do grace an extraordinary menu are Oaxaca quality paragons of deliciousness, truly worthy of my friend Bill’s “Oh, my God!” proclamation. Rather than limit myself to one singular mole, I opted for the enchiladas with mole, moist shredded chicken enrobed in corn tortillas and topped with your choice of mole–all three in my case. Though each mole has a distinct flavor profile, it’s advisable to focus on one before moving on to the other. It staves off taste bud confusion and lets you focus (probably in a dreamlike trance) on the mole at hand. Unless you have an asbestos-lined tongue, you might also want to save the mole picoso for last. More than the other moles, chiles–incendiary and angry–are what you’ll discern most. Toasted chiles are an essential ingredient in mole negro, but this, the “queen of all moles” is equal parts sweet, smoky and piquant in a delightfully complex manner. Is it any wonder The Atlantic says “Mole negro tastes like all your best memories.”
21 November 2019: Linda’s choice was Mole Oaxaqueño, a rather generic name for the dish (because as we know all the moles on La Guelaguetza’s menu are Oaxaqueño). She excluded the mole picoso leaving a hefty chicken breast covered in swoon-worthy mole negro and mole coloradito so good you’ll be tempted to lick the plate. The coloradito is composed of a variety of dried chiles, fruits, nuts and chocolate among several other ingredients. As with all moles, those ingredients renounce their individuality to coalesce into one beautiful whole. The sum is certainly greater than the parts. This is a magnificent mole, layered with flavor. It’s mysterious, intense and absolutely delicious. Lest you accuse me of laying it on as thick as the mole, the accompanying rice and beans were fairly pedestrian, not worthy of being on the same plate as the Mole Oaxaqueño.
11 December 2019: It’s been said that a restaurant’s menu is an important piece of its marketing collateral because it not only informs your current visit’s dining choices, an exciting menu entices you to return to try something else. After my inaugural visit, my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” and I were certainly enticed by the opportunity to try birria two ways. Birria is one of those terms seemingly open to interpretation. The term can (ideally) mean goat or mutton, but is sometimes used for beef or chicken. It can be used to describe a spicy stew containing the aforementioned proteins or it can refer to the proteins themselves. We were fortunate enough to enjoy birria both ways.
First came the hearty, spicy Mexican stew made with goat slowly-simmered with the meat still on the bone. The meat falls off and into the broth during the simmering process, rendering it incredibly tender and rich. A fiery red broth announces the presence of incendiary chiles, probably ancho and guajillo while the freshness of the chopped onions and cilantro indicate they were added just before serving. It’s the way Mexicans have been preparing birria for generations. It’s the way Sr. Plata and I enjoyed it. We also enjoyed the birria tacos we split. In this case, the birria was beef brisket as tender, moist and delicious as any brisket you’ll ever have. Served with red onions and cilantro, the tacos were absolutely outstanding.
21 November 2019: If the Salazar brothers chose to focus solely on life-altering mole and other savory Oxacan treasures, diners would leave fully sated, duly impressed and exclaiming “Oh, my God!” Thankfully, however, the Salazar brothers go the extra mile and serve perhaps the very best cheesecake in the Duke City. It’s one of six desserts on the menu, none of the others being the ubiquitous pastel tres leches. A very generous wedge of zesty cheesecake drizzled with chocolate and strawberry sauce is large enough to share, not that you’ll want to. The very top layer of this cheesecake is sweeter and tangier than the rest of the creamy concoction, but every spoonful is soul-satisfying.
11 December 2019: I would certainly be remiss not to mention La Guelaguetza’s outstanding coffee made with beans grown in Oaxaca. For two caffeine fiends such as Sr. Plata and I who often lament the dearth of good restaurant coffee, Oaxacan coffee is a tremendous find. Oaxacan coffee is a rich blend with an enticing aroma with a smoky profile. La Guelaguetza uses larger coffee mugs than most restaurants and your coffee is replenished faithfully.
When Luciano Salazar explained the Oaxacan tradition of La Guelaguetza, an annual celebration of indigenous culture, he emphasized that the term itself means “un regalo” or a gift. Linda and I certainly left La Guelaguetza pleasantly contented at having received the great gift of warm hospitality and great food.
816 Coors Drive, S.W., Suite B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 11 December 2019
1st VISIT: 21 November 2019
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Chapulines, Hormigas, Cheesecake, Mole Oaxaqueño, Enchiladas de Mole, Taco Al Pastor, Pellizcada con Longoniza, Pellizcada de Carne Desebrada, Oaxacan Coffee, Birria, Birria Tacos