Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, Penn Quarter, Washington, DC

For our March meeting, our Old Guys Group headed to Oyamel, just around the corner from the site of our February meeting, Rasika, which I reviewed here. We’d hoped to go to Oyamel in February, but they’d just received a nomination from the James Beard Foundation, and reservations were not to be had for love nor money. In March, things had calmed down enough for us to get a pre-noon reservation on a Wednesday.

We sat and looked over the menu, which takes a good bit of looking over. Like other Jose Andres restaurants, the menu relies heavily on small plates, in this case Mexican street food. Ordering the right balance of small plates for a group can be fraught. Sometimes you find a system, as at Grato, where ordering the whole left side of the menu is a home run. More often you either starve or over-eat.

We over-ate. We started with a drink, a glass of sauvignon blanc ($11) for Willie and beers ($7-8) for everyone else. Oyamel’s beer menu was surprisingly limited. It offered only one craft beer, a blood orange IPA (8%abv!), and that not an especially good one. A couple of others were on the menu, but the server said that those were seasonal. I went with a Mexican pilsner. Some fairly thick chips arrived with a good red salsa.

Would you like to start with guacamole ($16)? We would! It was a very large serving, a must-order for a group of four, fine, very fresh, very creamy. We’d ordered it “medium,” but next time I’ll order spicy.

After some dithering, we decided to get two street (i.e., small) tacos each ($6-7 per taco), and to split two vegetables, chayote asado ($12), and a tamal de asote ($9) to share. The server observed that their tamal is a street tamal, two or three bites. Okay, two tamales (still $9).

Let’s started with the shared vegetable plates. The tamales had a mildly seasoned black bean filling within a thick and creamy sweet potato “shell.”

It’s pretty, isn’t it? On top you see the red guajillo salsa, white crema over a dusting of queso cotija, and scatterings of roasted pumpkin seeds and baby cilantro. It’s an interesting dish, and very accessible for those wary of over-seasoning. Usually, of course, the outer area of tamales consists of masa made from corn. I’m a big cornmeal fan, and for flavor, I personally prefer masa. Ah, here’s the chayote.

The chayote, a squash, had been grilled, as had the broccoli, while the large pieces of cauliflower were essentially raw. The watercress on the menu seems to have turned into arugula, which adds that same peppery bite. The binding element was a very flavorful tomato and arbol chile salsa. Unfortunately, the kitchen failed to cut the vegetables to a roughly uniform size prior to grilling or serving. Indeed, the cauliflower pieces were too large to eat comfortably, and too firm to cut easily. The poor sizing of the vegetables interfered with the distribution of the excellent salsa, and really undercut the dish.

Going around the table with the street taco orders, Marc ordered the Pollo a la Parrilla, a chicken thigh, marinated and grilled, and topped with guacamole and green onion; and the Cochinita Pibil con Cebolla en Escabeche, slow-roasted pork with sour orange and marinated onion slices. Frank ordered two of the same pork tacos– he enjoyed the pork tacos, while Marc much preferred the chicken. That’s curious, given the mix of ingredients, as the same combination of pork and sour orange (plus garlic) produces that delicious Cuban pork.

Here’s a closer view of Frank’s pork.

The redness of the onions is from an escabeche marinade, which offers some heat and tang to complement the sour orange and balance the richness of the pork. Oh, and as you can see, Oyamel uses blue corn tacos. I’m a big fan. I understand that blue corn is more healthful than white or yellow corn, but I can’t say that I see a huge difference in flavor. Blue corn takes me back to all that time I spent in New Mexico and Arizona bringing voting rights cases on behalf of Navajo and Pueblo voters, fueled mainly by blue corn cheese enchiladas smothered with other-worldly green chiles and topped with fried eggs.

Willie broke ranks and ordered a seafood salad, Atun Pacifico ($22), rather than tacos.

It consisted of very fresh Ahi tuna marinated in Maggi (very roughly the Mexican equivalent of Lea and Perrins) and lime. The tuna came with scallions, avocado, toasted pecans, fresno chiles, and crispy amaranth. This was a very well-conceived and executed dish, and Willie did justice to it.

I ordered a Carnitas Taco, shown below on the right. It was those blue corn tortillas graced with confit pork topped with chopped onions, a touch of avocado salsa verde, plus cilantro, and capped with an outsize pork rind. And yes, that’s a wedge of lime. For my second taco I had Chilorio de Res, shredded beef braised in a sauce of pasilla and guajillo chiles, and topped with white onions.

The confit pork was rich with an intense pork flavor balanced by the onion dice and the trace of salsa. The pork rind added an earthy, slightly funky quality that I enjoyed, but it would have been much better in pieces to blend in with each bite, as in the surprisingly good risotto at Ropa Viejo in San Juan. As it was, I ate the pork rind by itself.

Chilorio is usually braised pork with pasilla and guajillo or other peppers. The de Res means that it was made with beef, and similarly braised with peppers. It was delicious, very similar in flavor to birria, and it immediately reminded me of the absolutely delicious birria tacos at Tacos Hernandez down in Lexington Park. When you go to Oyamel, be sure to get at least one.

This was a fine lunch, and a pricey one by our standards. I’ve long been a huge fan of Jose Andres, and was disappointed to see some unforced errors, both in preparation and in service. I suspect that these flowed from the spike in demand following the James Beard nomination. There seem (memory sometimes fails me) to be a couple of extra tables inside, and a new cluster of tables outside under a tent. More customers, more tables, a need for more employees both out front and in the kitchen, and scant time to train them — with all that problems occur. Still, Oyamel serves some excellent food, and when it’s on its game, Oyamel is outstanding.

Give Oyamel some time to get back to its normal greatness. Then head to Oyamel for a delicious meal.


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