"The art world has Mexico City," read the deck of a Bon Appétit story on Mexico, published in spring 2017. "The fashion crowd takes Tulum. And for true food lovers? Oaxaca is the essential Mexican pilgrimage." Something tells me that Mexico's other 30 states would contest this. Dozens of Phoenix restaurants could plate evidence to the contrary. That said, Oaxaca has an undeniable mystique. Like Tuscany or Leon, it has a vague magic that inflates the region to fantastic proportions in outsiders' minds.
Across American restaurant culture, national cuisines are fracturing into regional cuisines. The broader national cuisines like Thai, Indian, and Mexican are increasingly fragmenting into northern Thai, northeastern Thai, and so on, smaller parts of a country that, together, jigsaw into the whole.
This splitting has happened organically over the centuries. This is how food has evolved. The split happening now in restaurant culture is mirror to the natural split that has occurred over the ages.
Oaxaca is a region in southern Mexico. It is two-thirds mountains, has uncommonly fertile soil, and has lasting indigenous influences. Chiles, corn, and chocolate are gastronomic pillars. Many Mexican specialties are most associated with Oaxaca, for one, mezcal. The region is nicknamed "land of the seven moles."
With this nickname setting a high bar for lunch, I rolled up to Oaxaca Restaurant on Bethany Home Road in Phoenix expecting to eat lots of mole. And I did.
Two out of my three dishes contained it. Mole is a complex, ancient Mexican sauce pounded into a paste-like mixture from numerous ingredients, often more than 30. There are countless kinds of mole. The mole in my chicken tamale and tlayuda — the latter an Oaxacan dish like pizza but made with paper-thin crust — was loamy and dank with a chocolate musk. I couldn't pin a single ingredient in the fugue of them.
But the best thing I had was the third dish, the one without mole.
It was a memela. The memela is an Oaxacan preparation kind of like a gordita. It's made from a blend of masa and water, and, at this restaurant, hand-shaped like a medium-sized pancake with the outside lipped high to rim in sauce and cheese pooled in the middle.
At Restaurant Oaxaca, owned by Jorge Lopez, black bean paste is slicked the broad central hollow of the memela. A small blizzard of queso freso and quesillo (an Oaxacan goat cheese) comes atop. The quesilla appears in scraggly ropes that loop and fold in a visual tangle.
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The cheese has a rustic, tart element, a vinegary tang similar to farmers' cheese. It kicks with a pungent milky flavor and seems to release all kinds of mysterious inner oils as your teeth work incise through the strings. Just under the cheese and the bean paste, the corn cake is soft and warm and a trace firm. It's the kind of corn dish more earthy than sweet, something that reminds you that corn is a legendary Old World agricultural product and not some pale yellow bullshit out of an 80-cent can.
It reminds you of corn's potential, of why corn has long been venerated in places like Oaxaca.
Next time you're pining for Mexican, consider the memela and its Oaxacan relatives. And let's hope this wonky regional food thing keeps on keeping on. It'll be cool to discover (or rediscover) the unheralded far-flung flavors of Oaxaca and the country to the south's other 30 states.
Restaurant Oaxaca. 1818 West Bethany Home Road; 602-395-0867.
Daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.