A pre-Columbian culinary adventure

VIBRANT: A colorful array of indigenous cuisine that’s not your typical Tex-Mex fare.


“Giving the world a taste and history of Oaxacan gastronomy is something you’ll experience only here,” Head Chef Rogelio Martinez said.

Everyone knows their mom’s cooking is the best, but when madre is not in the casa then Head Chef Rogelio Martinez comes close.

When you walk into Casa Oaxaca’s stain crafted walls you feel as though you’ve walked into your neighbor’s house for dinner in Mexico. With tropical curtains, small mythical statues and walls adorned by murals, the ambiance is warm and inviting. Waitresses wearing white dresses are full of smiles and prompt attention confirms it: like any hospitable host, they make it known that they want you to stay.

Oaxaca is known as Mexico’s culinary capital for its pre-Hispanic food’s. The style involves using medium to hot spicy chilies in the traditional seven types of moles that developed from their state in southern Mexico.

Infused with chocolate and 32 spices, flares of pasilla and guajillo chilies give a sweet smokiness to the dark brown mole sauce.

“It’s so popular, we have to cook gallons of the sauce daily,” said Martinez, who also owns the restaurant with his wife Angelica.

Before the Spanish Conquistadores arrived and brought domesticated livestock to the Americas, the indigenous people of the Valley of Oaxaca subsisted on a diet of tubers, squash, corn, nuts and chilies. Martinez incorporates this rustic cuisine with hints of vibrant to mild spices, blending their flavors.

While there, indulge in their horchata, which is unlike your favorite taqueria’s version. For one, it’s pink and infused with melon and speckled with walnuts. The chilacayote looks gross and swampy but the strings of squash add a pleasant surprise. It also packs the sugar rush of 13 pan dulces.

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Martinez plays with other exotic ingredients too. Try his version of nopales, a somewhat sour cactus salad, mixed with onions and tomatoes.

If you’re really adventurous, get your mouth on the tlayuda. This large tortilla is first layered with black beans, fresh string cheese like quesillo and cabbage, then topped with thinly sliced pieces of juicy beef, tasajo, spicy Oaxacan sausage and tomato and avocado slices. The bold Oaxacan sausage enhances its mild flavors.

Vegetarians need not be left out. Rajas de chile pasillas con crema, a side of chopped roasted peppers and corn in cream will make you wipe your plate clean with your tortilla.

Martinez intends to keep the essence of his Zapotec culture by traveling to Mexico to source ingredients and find inspirations for his restaurant. Searching for authentic fare inspires his modernist take on an ancient culinary tradition.

Casa Oaxaca, 3317 W. 1st St., Santa Ana.

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