While the snow was still on the ground and a chill was still in the air, we got a craving for something warm and inviting.  Something that would help us forget the DC winter and would bring to mind sunnier climates.  We wanted Mexican.

Thankfully, our good friend Coffee Shop Girl has heard us complain on multiple occasions about our failure to find good (and authentic) Mexican food in Washington.  She had already tried to steer us toward the best horchata in town, resulting in our visit to Taqueria Distrito Federal.  Her next suggestion was the Oaxacan cuisine at the appropriately-named Casa Oaxaca in Adams Morgan.  So we bundled up and made plans to meet her and her boyfriend to check it out.

I knew we were in for a good time when we arrived and settled in with drinks.  The menu offered more than a dozen flavors that could be worked into your choice of margaritas, mojitos or martinis, including some more exotic flavors like tamarind, prickly pear and hibiscus.  I immediately gravitated toward the refreshing fizz of a michelada, and Elizabeth put their horchata to the test.

We quickly dispatched the small, black bean tortas that were sent out as an amuse bouche, and got ready for a saucy adventure.  Details and dishes after the jump.

Oaxacan cuisine is first and foremost about the sauces.  The state is known as the “Land of the Seven Moles,” a reference to the traditional versions that color and flavor a range of dishes from seafoods to meats and even vegetables.  Now we’ve had mole before, but we had always thought of it as a sweet-spicy blend of chocolate and chiles.  As it turns out, there’s plenty more where that came from.

One of the most impressive things about mole is its complexity.  Check out a recipe for any of the traditional moles, and don’t be surprised to count more than a dozen – and probably closer to two dozen – ingredients.  Spices are hand-ground and toasted individually and in groups to bring out their richest flavors.  Sauces are slow-simmered over hours and sometimes days to achieve a depth that quick preparations just can’t achieve.

Any one mole on a menu is impressive and signals a studied hand in the kitchen.  But Casa Oaxaca is true to its name, offering at least six different moles that are served over various dishes on the menu.  We were stunned.  We asked for advice on the flavors of the various moles in the hope that it would help us narrow down our dinner choices, but the waiter did us one better: he brought us a sample of all six on one plate, with some corn tortillas to dip.  They made a rainbow of colors, from coloradito (light red) to amarillo (yellow/orange), verde (green) and even blanco (white).  We all tasted our way around the color wheel and found our personal favorites.

But before we could move onto our entrees, there was the issue of appetizers to be dealt with.  Tlayuda Oaxaquena featured strips of dried beef and a chipotle cream sauce atop a homemade corn tortilla.  It felt a bit like a Mexican pizza, and we made short work of it.

We had all heard about Casa Oaxaca’s kekas, a trio of blue corn tortillas that come filled with poblanos, pork carnitas, and huitlacoche. That third item is also known as “corn smut,” and it’s actually a black, viscous fungus that affects corn.  It’s quite popular in Mexican cuisine, but it doesn’t show up all that often on American menus.  We ordered a round of kekas to share and we found the huitlacoche to have an earthy, kind of funky flavor.  I’m not sure I’d go out of my to find it again, but it was definitely worth a try.

After our vibrant introduction to all of the homemade moles, it became much easier to choose our main courses.  The chicken breast in the mole negro (black) was surprisingly tender and moist, and the baby pork ribs in the mole verde were far tastier than their simple presentation suggested.  But both of them paled in comparison to the grilled beef in the mole coloradito, the red sauce that is described as “typical Oaxacan mole” on the menu.  The dish was flavorful with obvious chile notes and just a dusting of sesame seeds across the top.  The tang of the sauce played well with the medium rare slices of grilled beef, and the whole thing tasted like it could have been served at Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo or a similarly high-end establishment.

Throughout our meal service was friendly and attentive, but we were pretty much the only people in the dining room so it would have been surprising if we had been neglected at all.  Waiters were always happy to share information about the food and drinks on the menu, seeming to take real pride in what their restaurant was turning out.  And rightly so – each of those moles was unique and delicious.  The fact that they all came from the same kitchen made it even more impressive.  I look forward to heading back next time we’re in the mood for some tasty, complex Mexican flavors.

Casa Oaxaca
2106 18th Street, NW
Washington, DC
Casa Oaxaca on Urbanspoon