Native species of corn, chocolate, tropical herbs, tomatoes and a variety of chilies are at the core of Oaxacan cooking. It is a labor-intensive cuisine of seeding, peeling, mashing, rolling out, roasting, boiling and sauteing.
Zaida and Ron Kent's Oaxacan Kitchen in Palo Alto, which opened in mid-July, embodies the best of that south Mexico cuisine. The restaurant mimics a typical Oaxacan marketplace kitchen. The most interesting seats in the house are those overlooking the bustling work area. A glass partition protects diners from getting dusted with corn flour.
Midday, the restaurant is geared towards faster fare: Patrons place their orders at the register and food is quickly brought to the table. There are small signs encouraging eaters to bus their own tables. Unfortunately, the narrow space can become as unwieldy as an under-stuffed pi–ata with people moving in opposing directions in the tight space.
It's more relaxed in the evening with a hostess to intercept and seat diners. Crisp white linens cover rigid wood tables; lighting is subdued; candles add a genteel glow. The walls are the color of roasted butternut squash, further warmed with the vibrant paintings of Doris Arellano and photos of Oaxacan life captured by Ron Kent.
Zaida Kent is a native Oaxaquena and Ron Kent is a professional chef who received his culinary education while working with some of the region's most talented chefs. Appropriately, the couple met in a restaurant while Zaida was a student here some years ago. After marrying, they spent five weeks in Oaxaca meeting her family and exploring the native cuisine.
"We met ladies in markets with incredible hand-crafted products," Ron Kent said. "They invited us into their homes and taught us their age-old techniques.
"Our dishes are based upon centuries-old recipes, and are incredibly labor-intensive. Fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs from local farmers, as well as the most authentic ingredients from Oaxaca, go into our food."
The menu descriptions at the Oaxacan Kitchen do not do justice to the robust flavors, the bold colors, the artistic presentations or the sublime undertones that linger on the palate long after the meal.
Moles are complex sauces that come in a variety of colors: verde (green), negro (black), amarillo (yellow) and coloradito (red). Moles can be flavored with sesame and other seeds, almonds, pecans, roasted peanuts, lemon juice, herbs, tomatoes, garlic, onions, carrots, cinnamon sticks, cloves, chocolate, sugar, chicken broth and chilies of every description: chihuacle, pasilla and guajillo, give or take a few ingredients.
Mole negro with poached chicken breast ($17) was a complex tapestry of flavors, yet none in conflict. The chicken was really a prop for the sensational sauce. The mole amarillo ($15), mole coloradito ($16) and the mole verde all blanketed poached chicken breasts. Each had its own degree of piquancy, aroma and texture; each spoke a language of its own.
Another way of sampling moles is ordering the salsa y mole de la casa ($5) as an appetizer plate. One evening, the moles were a smoky roasted tomato, a piquant salsa verde and an elusively spicy mole coloradito served with crispy corn chips. The moles whetted the appetite and ignited the taste buds.
I loved the handmade tamale de calabasa ($7), a corn husk filled with butternut squash, corn, zucchini and guajillo salsa. The mild red guajillo peppers were dried, seeded, soaked and pulverized to a paste, then reduced over heat to a thick, vivid, earthy salsa.
The terrific vegetarian chili rellenos ($11) were stuffed with butternut squash, zucchini and queso fresco: a creamy, soft, white cheese. The pasilla chilies had been fire-roasted and deep-fried without batter. Oaxacan Kitchen chefs think that batters absorb too much oil, masking the ingredients' flavors.
Enmoladas with beef ($16) was a large rolled tortilla, dipped in mole negro, and topped with queso fresco, sliced onion and parsley. The raw onion slowly absorbed the mole and added another taste dimension to the wonderfully rich sauce.
Desserts are a rare delight. The chocolate experience ($8) seemed a shortcut to heaven. First, there was the shot of hot chocolate, which prepped the taste buds for the warm-from-the-oven, gooey, delectably silken, flourless chocolate cake. The trio was completed by the luscious, fudgiest chocolate ice cream on the planet. Chocolate had not been my favorite dessert until this.
Also, there was delightful fresh peach almond tart ($5), with a buttery crust that melted on the tongue. Although late in the season, the chunks of fresh peaches were plump, fleshy and naturally sweet.
The reasonably priced wine list is composed mostly of local wines, many available by the glass. Beers and soft drinks, several from Mexico, are also served.
The Oaxacan Kitchen brings us the dazzling colors, the complex flavors, the stimulating aromas and the vibrancy of Oaxacan culture and cuisine. Being at the restaurant is like stopping by a marketplace in the south of Mexico, where food is passionate self-expression and a labor of love, and links ancient recipes to contemporary tastes.
The Oaxacan Kitchen
2323 Birch St.
(off California Ave.)
Lunch: Tue.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Tue.-Sat. 5-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: wine and beer
Outdoor dining: streetside tables
Party and banquet facilities: call restaurant
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent
This story contains 970 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.