Oaxaca is a state in the Republic of Mexico in the southwest corner of the country hard along the Pacific Ocean. There are 31 states in the country, and each one brings something different to the table of Mexican cuisine. This variety is starting to be seen in Mexican and other Central American menus in the Southwest, where, for decades, Hispanic food meant enchiladas, tamales, tacos, beans and rice.
As the Hispanic population of Texas has moved north, so have their food ways, and the “mom and pop” Hispanic restaurants have filled the void left when many Southern “mom and pop” eateries of blue plate specials have given way to chain dining. Cielito Lindo in Denison, is an example of that culinary diversity we are starting to see in Mexican cuisine.
It’s not a “mom and pop;” it is “mom and daughter” that started four years ago in a building that once housed a pizza joint and who can remember what else. I had arranged a lunch meeting with a friend of mine last week, and mentioned that I was considering Cielito Lindo. Bingo! He said it was his favorite “for Mexican that is not Tex-Mex” place, and so off we went.
My friend had gotten to know the daughter in the equation. She works the front of the house while mom runs the kitchen. The place was still quiet before the lunch rush, so we took the time to chat about the how, why and when of the business. Her parents are from Oaxaca, so that is the underlying direction of the menu.
It was Wednesday, and that is tamale day at Cielito Lindo — three tamales for $3.75 — and the café is known for its tamales for good reason. We started with an order, two chicken and a pork. They are hand made, big and three would easily make a meal in itself for many people. They are also well stuffed. Quite a few places that serve tamales of the 70/30 variety, 70 percent masa and 30 percent filling. The Oaxacan version runs the other direction. The restaurant also offers, on occasion, dessert tamales, which are not easy to find save for the winter holidays.
What next was the question. With so many options, and so little basic knowledge of what was what, we decided to take the easy road and Oaxaca platillo tradicional, which, however you translate it, works out to “a big plate with a little bit of a lot of tastes.” You also might call it the “meat lovers’ plate,” and the menu notes that it is intended to serve two.
First up is the fajita beef. Fajitas have become a staple of Mexican as well as Tex-Mex cooking in recent years. Slip several thin, quickly cooked strips of the steak into a corn tortilla, add a dollop of sauce, and you are on your way. Vying for a place on the tortilla were strips of Cenica pork loin. This application originates in Spain where various meats, beef, goat, rabbit and even horse were sliced paper thin, marinated and covered with chili pepper. The Mexican versions stick to beef and pork. Need another filling for your tortilla? How about chorizo? These spicy ground meat sausages go well with most anything from soup to scrambled eggs, and Celitio Lindo’s version was not greasy, like some I have had.
My half of the chili relleno was a tasty translation of one of my favorite Tex-Mex dishes even though it was without the heavy covering of sauce and cheese found on many versions, but as far as I am concerned, the surprise of this plate was the grilled cheese. Oaxcaca cheese or quesillo, is a semi-hard white cheese similar to fresh Monterrey Jack but with a texture more like mozzarella. Cut into cubes, the cheese is grilled on two sides giving a slightly crunch to each bite. It took me a moment to figure out what this was, and then I started squirreling the cubes onto my side of the platter.
Also on the plate were several Oaxaca molotes. These are essentially the regional version of empanadas, masa dough filled, rolled and fried. Potatoes are sometimes added to the dough, and chorizo is common filling. The Oaxaca version usually are formed in to cigar shapes and served as snack food or an appetizer. Topping off the plate were two memelas. These thin corn cakes are similar to the sopes and huaraches found in other regions of Mexico. Black beans, salsa, shredded cabbage, mole negro, guacamole and cheese are the traditional toppings on the Oaxacan version of the dish which reaches back into prehistoric times. Served alongside of this sampling of many things, are guacamole, pico de gallo, cactus and a plate of rice and beans.
Dessert? Sorry too full for a piece of Tres Leches or cheesecake, but just enough room to split a tall glass of horchata, the cold concoction of rice milk, sugar, cream and cinnamon that adds a sweet and spicy finish to the meal.
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