Mezcal Restaurant in San Jose specializes in authentic Oaxacan cuisine, from the mole negro and mole coloradito—two of the seven famed Oaxacan chocolate sauces—to the chapulines, or grasshoppers sauteed in garlic, lime and salt.
“Why not?” owner Adolfo Gomez told San José Spotlight. “It’s a traditional item for us. People say we’re trying to be different or funny, but no. The reason why we have it is because that’s part of our chain of food back in Oaxaca.”
The dish was unique enough, however, to earn Mezcal a nationally televised appearance on “Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern” in 2013, five years after the restaurant opened. The Food Network show helped put Mezcal on the map.
“When I got here the day after it was on television,” Gomez said, “there were 25 people in line, and my employees could not figure out why we were so busy. We still get new customers every time they show that episode.”
Gomez is serious about his grasshoppers, which arrive fresh from Oaxaca every two weeks. He’s just as serious about the herbs and chocolates for his moles which he also sources from his home country, lending authenticity to his dishes.
Gomez was a 17-year-old construction worker following his family’s trade when he moved from Los Angeles from Oaxaca in 1989. A year later, he moved to Modesto and decided to change careers.
He went to work for the Club Quarters Hotel group, working on the event side of the business, but dreamt of opening his own restaurant. At the time, he said, all that San Jose offered was Americanized food from Michoacan and Jalisco. That inspired him to want to elevate and master the cuisine of Oaxaca.
Gomez worked with his mother, Doña Libo, and his brother Tavo, and together they transcribed all of the family recipes and trained the cooks.
“My mother has been cooking for 50 years,” he said. “She is one of those people who says, ‘You add a little bit of this and a little bit of that.’ And my brother would stop her and say, ‘Wait. Wait. Wait. How much is a little bit?’”
Tortilla soup, a house specialty made with grilled chicken, tomatoes, onions, avocado and corn tortilla strips, is regular customer Liam O’Connor’s go-to menu item.
“The food has a feel for authentic Mezcal region cooking,” he told San José Spotlight. “You can sense that when you come in here. All of the flavors are there and you can taste the care that goes into it.”
Doña Libo still comes in every day to make tortillas of various sizes. There are small ones for appetizers such as memelitas, a sort of Oaxacan tostada brushed with pork crackling spread, covered in black bean puree and topped with queso fresco—and larger ones for the mole enchiladas.
Oaxaca enchiladas are an interesting departure from those on a standard Mexican-American restaurant menu. The tortillas are not stuffed with a filling, rolled and then baked, but rather are filled with cheese, folded over and grilled like a quesadilla. They are then topped with black bean puree, onions and queso fresco. A choice of meat, like the airline chicken, a boneless breast with drumette attached, is gently centered on top.
The bean puree is a standard with many of the dishes. With a silky smooth texture, it is flavored with epazote, a mint-like herb that carries notes of citrus and oregano, sweet and slightly bitter yerba santa and toasted avocado leaves that are similar to bay.
Most dishes are geared toward street-food simplicity, with a few fresh ingredients. Gomez is particularly proud that his richly flavored guacamole, made with no preservatives, will turn from bright green to brown if not eaten quickly.
“We make it with just three ingredients: avocado, cilantro and jalapeño,” he said. “No lime, no salt, no nothing. People ask if they can add tomatoes or lime, and we can do it, but we want them to have it the way we make it in Oaxaca.”
While sauces are available to kick up the heat if desired, Oaxacan food is mild by nature, allowing for a subtle and complex flavor profile that leaves your palate guessing.
“When you put too many spices just to make it hotter,” Gomez said, “you are hiding your skills, which means you don’t know how to cook. We talk about our food in terms of art and flavors and colors. We want to follow our traditions and our roots.”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected].
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