Being from California, I possess a genuine, passionate love for authentic Mexican cuisine. We're practically born and raised with it here on the west coast, and we wouldn't have it any other way. The hubbs and I have, in fact, incorporated these foods into our weekly meals because neither of us can go longer than seven days before we break out into "I-want-Mexican-food-hives" and/or severe anxiety resulting in salsa verde temper tantrums. When I learned about the existence of Oyamel, Chef José Andrés version of a traditional Mexican cocina, my curiosity was piqued. It's a natural reaction I have when travelling, wondering, "Will it be as good as home?" Call me crazy, but I haven't found better "authentic" Mexican food outside of California (not including actual Mexico, which of course, puts all Cal-Mexi to shame) although I'm sure it exists. I had to give Oyamel a fighting chance, especially when I was told that their ceviche would keep me coming back for years...
Why call it Oyamel?
"Every year, millions of monarch butterflies leave their homes in the US and Canada and migrate south to spend their winter in the mountains of Michoacán. The butterflies seek refuge in the oyamel tree, considered a sacred fir native to central Mexico. The forest appears to be draped in gold thanks to the thousands of butterflies covering the trees. Adding to the otherworldly quality of the place is the "shhhhhh" sound from the butterflies flapping their wings to stay warm. The locals welcome back the returning butterflies, which, because they appear about the time of Day of the Dead, they believe bear the spirits of their departed."
I made my way back to Penn Quarter to have lunch at Oyamel on a very hot, humid day. It seemed fitting at the time, and I was enamored with the neighborhood. So many restaurants, pubs and random shops, not to mention it was a great way to burn off some calories, being a four mile roundtrip walk from our hotel. Arriving at precisely noon, right as AACR broke for lunch, was a bit of a struggle-- being on my own gave me a great advantage as I approached the restaurant because my mad j-walking skills kicked in. I managed to beat the hoards of hungry smart people to the punch, and snagged at seat at ceviche bar inside of the main Oyamel window.
The inside of the restaurant is decorated with brightly colored walls, festive paper mache scultpures, punched-tin lighting and mobiles hanging from every part ceiling, paying homage to the restaurants namesake. The dining area is small but comfortable, and the staff is dressed in what I can only explain as gimme-one-now tees (see above).
As I sat down at the ceviche counter, the first thing I noticed was the shining, bright-eyed face of the young sous chef behind the glass counter preparing the tiny dishes of uncooked fish. He was a quietly focused individual with such meticulous attention to detail that in his right hand were a pair of tweezers holding a single stem of pea shoot. Tweezers. For food. He greeted me with a smile and a nod, then continued his construction of what looked like a favorite Oyamel dish-- Ceviche verde "El Bajio", a Hawaiian walu with a creamy sauce of avocado, tomatillo, green olives, and jalapeño chiles.
I waited for the hubbs to arrive, and watched him, fascinated by the level of quality-control, care and thought he was putting into every single dish. Tasting everything before it was placed in the hands of a waiter, answering the silliest questions by us patrons ogling his abilities. It was almost as if you didn't want to startle him, for fear of ruining his concentration and thus destroying the delicate dishes of gulf shrimp, Hawaiian sunfish and striped bass he was so gently plating and decorating with fresh produce slivers and flower garnishes. I was so intrigued by this fella that I hadn't noticed that a large chunk of time had passed and he was probably wondering if I was going to order anything at all.
Thank goodness the hubbs did finally fight his way through the crowds to join me for a quick, delicious meal. We ordered ourselves two glasses of cava and reveled in the bustling buzz of the compact little restaurant. Our waitress brought us some of their mouth-watering salsa (smoky chipotle chiles, onions and field ripened tomatoes) along with still hot house-made savory tortilla chips (fresh masa, fried daily, seasoned with a house-made blend of chiles, salt and tequila). We decided go with the daily lunch special and were very happy with our choices. For $20 a person, you get to choose two antojitos (street food) and a taco or an antojito, a taco and a postres (dessert). It doesn't sound like a ton of food for one person, but believe me, you will leave possibly too full or with a doggy bag. The hubbs and I were completely satiated having enjoyed the following...
Ceviche verde “El Bajio”
Hawaiian walu with a creamy sauce of avocado, tomatillo, green olives, and jalapeño chiles. The rumors are true. Oyamel ceviche is to die for-- fresh, bursting with flavor, just the right amount of tang, all balanced by the various components of the dish. The avocado was perfectly ripe and I appreciated that the dish was not overly spicy, although it did have a little kick.
Camarones al mojo de ajo negro
Shrimp sautéed with shallots, arbol chile, poblano pepper, lime and sweet aged black garlic. This dish was much more filling than expected, but tasty all the same. Large prawns steeped in aromatic flavors, cooked with tails on and still sizzling upon arrival.
Tamal with green sauce of tomatillo, shredded chicken breast, chili, garlic and cilantro. Both the hubbs and I had to order the tamal, along with everyone else in the restaurant. So tender and savory, with the creamiest, seedless sauce on earth that practically melts in your mouth. Divine.
Cochinita pibil con cebolla en escabeche
Yucatan-style pit barbecued pork with pickled, red onion and Mexican sour orange. The tacos are certainly some of the most popular on the menu for patrons. When the hubbs took his first bite of this tiny street-style taco, his eyes widened and he insisted that I stop mid-tamal to taste it. He was right, it was the closest thing to authentic street-style Mexican grub that I've tasted oustide of my home state. Bravo Chef, bravo.
Needless to say, we had blast at Oyamel, sitting by the counter, laughing and enjoying the atmosphere, and watching the people rush by outside as we sat and relished our DC-Mexi food. We were both in agreement when we finally finished our meal, bid adieu to the lovely ceviche chef with a wave, a smile and a "thank you so much", that Oyamel was indeed, a little bit of home on the east coast.
Next up, Zaytinya...
Photos courtesy of Oyamel.
Photo #5 author's own.
Next up, Zaytinya...
Photos courtesy of Oyamel.
Photo #5 author's own.