Flor de Oaxaca shuttles customers south.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
As good as it can taste, the best part about good mole might be its first stages: when your chef (in my case, it was my sexagenarian pal Evanhelina) moves through the bustling block-sized market of her colonia, shrewdly selecting the seemingly disparate ingredients that go into the potent sauce. The ashy chunks of fresh Mexican chocolate. The auburn rolls of cinnamon. And, oh, the peppers—from the scores of woven sacks holding hundreds of dried red, burgundy and black chiles, she somehow knew the precise dozen she had to have.
True mole, like that found on chicken, rellenos and enchiladas at Flor de Oaxaca in the Crossroads, takes me back to that market scene through the portal of the palate, moment by moment. The mole Oaxaqueño at Flor (“flower” in Spanish) first tickles the tastebuds with a tease of chocolate, then brushes the roof of the mouth with cinnamon and mild pepper, then smoothly unites all the wonderfully heady flavors before finishing with the subtlely textured spice of the peppers. Looking up from the almost black slathering of mole on my chicken, I half expect to see a pig’s head hanging from a hook.
Flor evokes Oaxaca much in the same way its mole evokes el mercado. Oaxaca the Mexican state feels thankfully undiscovered, tucked in between bigger destination states like Veracruz (Gulf getaway) and Guerrero (Acapulco), and is all the more authentic and less trafficked as a result. Flor, almost hidden in a nook of the Carmel Crossroads near Rio Grill and RG Burgers, is just as warm and seemingly undiscovered a year after it first opened. Its walls are bathed in inviting reds and oranges, with colorful and understated southern accents, and only one of its 15 tables is taken. (Then again, it is almost Carmel bedtime—7:30pm—on a rainy Thursday). Most importantly, both Oaxacas are worth discovering.
Fellow Oaxaca-fan Alexandra and I discover something in the appetizers—wow-worthy Memelitas ($5.95), two one-inch-high pucks that celebrate a seamless, seriously rich marriage of pork and cornmeal, and are topped with red tomatillo sauce and crumbles of queso ranchero. The smoky pork-masa inspires me to keep it moving in my mouth as long as possible.
The Caldo de Camaron ($14.95) comes next. A full bowl is a meal; splitting it still nets two generous bowls of soup, well accompanied by a small heap of fresh cilantro, diced onion, limes, and dark green slices of chiles frescos. I borrow from Evanhelina’s tutelage—slurping away the soup and all its cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, green beans, tiny diced red and green bell peppers first, leaving the four 2-inch prawns to be plucked by hand; Alex has more fun fishing for her shellfish first. Tasty stuff—like fully functional NAFTA neighbors, the vegetables and shrimp exchange flavors freely to savory effect.
Sharing the two dishes would work perfectly for a light meal before some Barnyard-Crossroads last minute holiday shopping, but I have a date with 14-pepper destiny. Mole Oaxaqueño ($14.95) for me and the cheese enchiladas and beef taco combo for Alex ($12.95).
The simple, tender (fork only) chicken is right for the strong complexity of the mole. A small green salad, rice, whoah-rich beans and queso fresca allow intervals. Then I’m back in the market for more.
I catch myself shaking my head in awe of the successful alliance of so many ingredients—I know not how this combination of raisins, almonds, and peppers I can’t pronounce can taste so good. Later, owner-chef and Oaxacan native Conrad Geronimo tells me his redder coloradito mole packs the power of even more peppers (25) on top of his standard 14 spices. He adds that friends traveling to and from Oaxaca (roughly 2,000 miles away) bring him thrice-monthly loads of market-teleporting peppers, including many that he says are only available there.
The enchilada is authentic Mexican (as opposed to Cali-tweaked), with the right texture of corn tortilla and a surprisingly wide belly of queso fresco and queso ranchero. The taco, with bottom and top layers of shredded jack, guacamole, and big chunks of fresh beef, shows attention to the little things.
Not that all about this Oaxacan flor smelled ideal. Upon our arrival, there was the hint of bleach in the air, and the Crossroads community bathroom outside wasn’t so rosy. And while young Cynthia was perfectly sweet and attentive for the most part, the Pacificos ($4.50) critical to fully enjoying the mild tomatoey and green salsas up front did require a reminder.
But when I open my to-go box laden with leftovers and
simmer in the from-scratch flavor all over again, the unsavory
details fade much faster than that spicy finishing kick from
the mole. I am reminded by the luxury of it that in Mexico
mole is typically reserved for celebratory occasions; I wish
myself a Merry Mole Christmas.
FLOR DE OAXACA45 Crossroads Blvd., Carmel | 625-3940
11am-8:30pm daily; until 5pm Sunday