Have you ever sat down in a Mexican restaurant, been presented with that complimentary basket of tortilla chips and fiery salsa, and began jamming them into your mouth with such abandon, you’re full before the guacamole even arrives? This behavior is usually accepted by friends and family, but may be a good reason to select another cuisine when you’re dining out with colleagues.
You know me, though, I’m not really one to practice restraint, no matter my company. In Washington earlier this summer, I invited my two corporate social media compadres, The A Team, to join me for dinner at Oyamel, Jose Andres’ ode to Mexican gastronomy, on the recommendation of several Facebook friends. My buddy Meg had teased me with Oyamel’s salt foam-topped margarita, and my obsession was born in earnest. I wasn’t disappointed. The exalted concoction was simple: blanco tequila, triple sec, lime juice, and the airy, briny foam on top, but the crown of brackish froth lent complexity and textural mouthfeel I’ve never before experienced, and set the tone for a very delightful repast, indeed.
Like Andres’ other DC joints, Oyamel concentrates on small plates, this time dubbed antojitos, or Mexican street plates, specifically from the alleys of Oaxaca (wa-HA-Ca). I love the style of dining encouraged by this tapas mode, and right away, we began ordering a bunch of goodies. To start: guacamole, made tableside.
It was fabulous, of course, unique with the addition of Mexican cheese, and I always enjoy the theater of a tableside preparation. The chunky, cooling, luxurious avocado danced with lime, red onion, mild chiles, queso fresco, and cilantro into a savory, light, refreshing dip for all those shatteringly crisp chips. Yum!
Next up: ceviche! You know this stuff, right? Basically, it’s the sushi of Latin America. Raw fish “cooked” in the acid of citrus juice and mixed up with veggies for a refreshing, often spicy, dish that’s perfect for warmer climes. We got the Pacifico, or tuna with crispy amaranth topping, which is a grain grown by the ancient Aztecs, and avocado, lime, and toasted pecans. This ceviche had jalapeños, but didn’t read spicy on the palate; rather, the nuts and grains lent it a substantial, warm flavor, earthy and almost sweet. Unlike any ceviche I’ve tasted before, and utterly delicious. The tuna, of course, was fresh, clean, and firm. Fabulous.
The other we chose was the Peje-sol ceviche; Hawaiian sunfish, marinated in lime and tomato salsa, with yet more avocado. This one was definitely more traditional as far as ceviches go, bright with sunny lime juice, and clean-tasting. I’ve said it already this summer, and I’ll repeat it now: I really only want to eat my fish raw going forward.
Papas al mole, or French fries in mole negro sauce, was honestly not my favorite. I’ve tried mole negro, an incredibly complex Oaxacan sauce of chiles, nuts, spices, herbs, and chocolate, on several occasions expecting to love it, and I just don’t. I thought maybe Jose could change my mind, but for me, these were soggy, sweet, and just lacking the salt and crunch I want in wet fries. I love gravy on my fries, and I love poutine, which is definitely what this dish is going for, but it missed my mark.
The albondigas, on the other hand, were a hit all around. Plus: fun to say! These meatballs, served in a warmly spicy chipotle sauce, were true comfort food, entwined in the hallmarks of Mexican flavor. Small, tender, saucey, and cheesy. Yeah.
Oh, I ordered a bunch of pork. Surprised? I didn’t think so. To start: the carnitas con salsa de tomatilla was my favorite dish of the evening. Confit of baby pig filled this tiny taco. Let me say that again: CONFIT of baby PIG. ~groan~ The tomatillo salsa had that bright, citrusy zing to counter the rich, lush, alluring, almost creamy fattiness of the pork. And the corn tortilla anchored both those flavors into the most prefect taco I have ever tasted. I could eat this every day.
Also up: quesadilla de chicharrones, pork belly fried up crisp and served in a flour tortilla with a mild chile sauce and cheese. The chile sauce on this somewhat obscured the taste of the pork, which bummed me out a bit, though it was still yummy.
We all loved the tamale verde, which was pulled chicken in tomatillo sauce. Again, those bright, clean, citrusy flavors balanced with the roasted chicken flavor, and left this reading light and refreshing on the palate, but still homey and satisfying.
The enchiladas placeras was a little weaker for me, the spiced beef and pickled chayote overwhelmed by the roasted tomato salsa, raw red onion, and radishes. This came off a little watery and insipid, despite the promise of the words spiced, pickled, and roasted.
After this glut of captivating food, we had no room for dessert, though I know Jose’s restaurants do some great ones. I’m still lusting after the rice pudding I had last summer at Jaleo, right up the street from Oyamel.
Overall, I was very satisfied with our meal, and besides my salt foam marg, A and A had some really wonderful cocktails as well, including the lip-smackingly fantastic blood orange chile pequin. I love a spicy beverage! I’d put Oyamel overall at an eight on the BHS scale, and I may bring my department here for our team meal next summer. It was inventive, fun, and a great group meal, even if I did make more of a pig of myself than I probably should allow myself in front of colleagues. Whoops...My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!