Oyamel Cocina Mexicana: Restaurant Review

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana
401 7th St. NW
Washington, DC, 20004
(202) 628-1005

So, I think I’ve found my new favorite place for dinner in DC: Oyamel. Owned and run by the same chef in charge of Cafe Atlantico, another favorite, Oyamel serves traditional Mexican dishes via the small plates style in a fun, young, and vibrant atmosphere. One of my favorite things in the restaurant are huge mobiles of butterflies. Don’t expect a lot of personal space, however. When we arrived a little before 9, the restaurant was completely packed, and we sat at a small table sandwiched between two other small tables in close proximity. By the time we finished eating, however, there was much more elbow room. Nevertheless, despite the close quarters, the vibe and energy of the restaurant was so much fun that we didn’t really mind.

Another plus: the menu is very imaginative and varied, and has quite a few things that I’m sure you haven’t tried before. For example, have you ever had a grasshopper taco? What about a beef tongue taco? I hadn’t before I ate at Oyamel, but now I have.

Jay and I started off the meal with table-side prepared Guacamole and an Oyamel Margarita, topped with an ephemeral salt foam. The Guacamole was actually spicy, as requested, and had the best texture I’ve ever had. I would have liked to have seen bits of tomato in the guac, but that’s pretty nit-picky. The margarita was excellent, and fixed a problem that I generally have with margaritas: salt on the rim. You need the salt, but sometimes the rim lining just doesn’t do it for me. By creating a salt air that sat on top of the alcohol itself, you got a little salty jolt with every sip, without having to do something like lick the rim. I would have liked to be able to taste the tequila a little more, but then again, we’re nit-picking.

This dinner was kind of my treat for Jay, so I let him be in charge of the ordering. Our waiter, Alex (who was AMAZING; Alex if you ever read this, you did an excellent job and we loved you), suggest 2-3 dishes per person, but we were so hungry that we ordered well over that amount. We started off with two salads: (1) Nopalitos, i.e. baby cactus salad with tomatoes in a lime dressing, and (2) ensalada de chayote, Mexican squash salad in a hibiscus dressing. The baby cactus was light and refreshing, and had a texture kind of like a thin pickle, with hints of zucchini. The Mexican squash was sliced very thin and was almost like thin slices of tomatoes. The hibiscus dressing was very interesting, floral yet deep, and was very good.

Next up was two tacos, and step 1 of my adventurous eating: (1) seared duck confit taco and (2) braised beef tongue taco.

Braised beef tongue on the left, duck confit on the right

If you’ve ever watched Bizarre Foods on the travel channel, you know that the host of that show likes tongues. I’m always looking to try new and crazy things, but tongues always seemed like a hard line to cross. Every time I thought about eating a tongue, I always imagined chewing on my own, not a very appealing prospect. So I had to order the beef tongue taco. I was pretty nervous, and imagined that maybe there would just be a huge, whole tongue lieing in the taco. Much to my happy surprise, this was not the case, and the braised beef tongue was probably the most tender meat I have ever, ever had. It literally melted in my mouth, and the sauce of chili, onions and tomato suffused it with so much flavor and moisture. The duck confit taco was likewise delicious and juicy. Jay and I managed to share these tacos, which are pretty small, but it was hard to share with these delicious tacos.

Round three: (1) grasshopper taco, (2) Yucatan-style barbecue pork taco.

I probably don’t need to tell you that the grasshoppers were another adventurous step for me, but for some reason I was less concerned about this taco and had less nervousness than with the beef tongue taco. The grasshoppers themselves were much smaller than I imagined. I pictured huge Arkansas-wildlife sized grasshoppers about the size of your thumb, but these were much smaller, almost delicate. The sauce the grasshoppers were in was very salty and garlicky, and the grasshoppers themselves didn’t have as much crunch as I expected (a good thing). I had a guilty little pleasure of playing with my food here, poking around in the taco for grasshopper heads and thoraxes. The pork barbecue taco was excellent, with a sweet tomato sauce that reminded me of something that I couldn’t really put my finger on.

Round 4: (1) braised short ribs, (2) seared scallops, (3) rice sauteed with black Mexican corn truffles.

Braised short ribs

Seared Scallops

Both of these dishes were excellent and perfectly cooked. The pumpkin seeds accompanying the scallops added a nice salty crunch that cut the creamy richness of the scallops themselves, and the short ribs were just plan amazing. There’s not really much more I can say about these dishes! They’re just classics done right. The rice in Mexican truffles was rich and creamy and delicious. I think they probably toasted the rice before cooking it, because it had a nice crunch and didn’t completely dissolve into mush. I remarked to Jay that the dish tasted like it had mushrooms in it, when he informed me that the mushroom taste came from the “truffles,” a fungus that grows on ears of corn and is then harvested. Well, that kind of grossed me out, but only for a second. I mean, I love blue cheese, and that’s technically moldy. The rice was excellent, nevertheless.

We still weren’t completely full, even after all of this, so we went for one more round of food before dessert: (1) confit of baby pig taco and (2) one of the specials, a poblano pepper stuffed with chorizo and topped with a rich cream sauce and pomegranate seeds.

The stuffed poblano, which was recommended by our waiter (I wanted the pepper stuffed with mahi mahi), was probably my least favorite dish of the meal. Nothing really wowed me. The stuffing was a little watery and had less flavor than desired, and the sauce was just too rich. The pepper itself was cooked perfectly, however, and had a nice sweetness, but this dish just wasn’t the star of the night. Likewise, the confit of baby pig taco didn’t rise to expectations. Although the pig meat was very tender and juicy, the flavor level was not as high as other dishes we tried. It was still pretty good, however.

For dessert, I mandated that we each get a different dessert and then share. There wasn’t much sharing, but the desserts were so big that we could have (and probably should have) shared one between us comfortably. Jay chose the chocolate cake and I went with the tres leches cake soaked in rum with a caramel ice cream.

If you read my review of Cafe Atlantico’s brunch, you know that the “dessert” of that meal was kind of a let down. Likewise, although these desserts were tasty, they didn’t really wow me, and they weren’t very exceptional. Mine was very rich and had a nice texture, and the lime gelatins were a nice touch, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to order this again. Jay’s chocolate cake was luscious, dark, and rich, but again, it didn’t have the wow factor of the main course dishes. There are two other desserts, both of which I considered, the custard and the caramel, as well as a choice of ice creams and sorbets, that might be more promising than these cakes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like they were bad or gross, they’re just not the best. I would almost suggest having dessert elsewhere, but I want to try the other dessert choices before finalizing this recommendation. I also had a Mexican spiced coffee, which was very good, but after a while just got to be too rich.

This was probably the most fun meal I’ve had in a long time. Its definitely one of my new favorite places for dinner, and I highly recommend it, especially if you have been dissatisfied with places like Rosa Mexicana. The service was great, the food was great, the wine was great (Santa Barbara Winery syrah, which was spicy with very little tanins that held up well against the food without battling it with too much body, and which went down very easily), the atmosphere was great. What more could you ask for?


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September 2008
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