228 College St., New Haven, (203) 859-5774, oaxacakitchen.com
Tequila can be a sign of seriousness. When consumed in quantities, of course, it can also lead to foolishness. But the walls of tequila bottles and the dozens and dozens of varieties at the bar at Oaxaca Kitchen in New Haven indicate a degree of commitment to the spirit in all its stinging and occasionally mind-clouding glory. Oaxaca Kitchen is a Mexican restaurant with a hacienda feel to the interior. It's a shady place to hide from the hot sun — or to tick away an hour with margarita in hand, before showtime at the Shubert (across the street).
Oaxaca Kitchen and its imposing tequila selection are on the move. They opened up a second location in Westport earlier this year. As with tequila varieties, the scope of Mexican food available at Mexican restaurants in America has long been in need of an upgrade. As anyone who's ever visited Mexico — or flipped through a Diana Kennedy cookbook or watched a Rick Bayless cooking show — knows, Mexican cuisine is more complex and varied than a platter of gooey enchiladas with shredded lettuce and a pile of rice and beans. The menu at Oaxaca Kitchen aims to give adequate attention to the wonders of mole, smoked peppers and corn.
The near tropical weather in recent weeks made an early afternoon trip to Oaxaca Kitchen's cool and dim back room feel like a sensible way to escape the spirit-stifling heat. A meal started with a metal scoop of confidently salted tortilla chips and a kind of blended salsa that was closer to smooth than to chunky, but which still carried a strong flavor of roasted garlic.
Lobster enchiladas were elegant on the plate, with a pool of silky poblano creme sauce, chopped onion and tomatoes adorning the two small corn tortillas. If the flavors of peppers and onion had been more assertive they likely would have outshone the centerpiece of the dish, the lobster. But as it was, an incremental increase in brightness — maybe some lime or cilantro — would have been a welcome nudge.
On the menu, an order of chorizo and shrimp tacos didn't indicate that it would be served with hard-shell tortillas, so when it was, I was a little disappointed and surprised. Hard-shell tortillas aren't cool, in my book, but those nifty little W-shaped taco stands that they were served on are. The crumbled chorizo, with its flavors of cumin and coriander seed, gained a different texture from the presence of shrimp. A small wooden bowl of a chipotle-infused sour cream provided both a layer of cool and fiery heat that undid itself.
An order of chiles relleno was surprising in its complexity and ambition. These roasted poblano peppers are stuffed and coated in an egg-batter and fried. At Oaxaca Kitchen the preparation became even more complex, with baby spinach, kernels of corn, slices of mild farmer's cheese and golden raisins stuffed inside the pepper before frying. (Don't try this at home: the corn might explode in the hot oil.) The stuffing, with its hint of cinnamon and origins that probably point back to old Spain and possibly even the Arabic influence, had a lot of elements, and the batter was expertly done, but I found myself perplexed by the mix of cheese and raisins.
An satisfyingly filling order of pork tenderloin and pozole (hominy) might have benefited from the addition of one or two sharp flavor accents. The broth was herby and hearty, with ample heat. A little bowl of chopped onions did help augment the texture and flavor with a lively crunch. Bowls of refried black beans and rice provided points of calm to rest the palate before darting back to the entrees.
One could cap things off with a flan or else you could talk yourself into treating the lime-juice jolt of one more margarita as a kind of dessert.