When non-Yalies ask me what I don’t like about our school, I usually have a hard time answering. But there always has been one incredibly troubling dilemma: the lack of a Mexican-food haunt close to campus. I don’t mean a Bulldog Burrito-esque greasy place where you go for a quick late-night snack. And places with nicer ambience that aren’t $20 or more per dish are few and far between — that is, until I found Oaxaca Kitchen.
Oaxaca Kitchen, a new restaurant from the owner of Thali Too, is the kind of place where you can have a nice, sit-down meal for two hours while simultaneously engaging in public drunkenness. Dark mood lighting coupled with tasteful decorations and seating creates a luxurious atmosphere made youthful by the addition of creative touches: Even the bathroom juxtaposes beautiful copper sinks with childlike chalkboard walls inscribed with Mexican recipes. This motif is continued in Oaxaca’s service, which is professional and attentive while simultaneously relaxing and cheerful.
The restaurant specializes in fancy tequilas, featuring brands so decadent that a single shot costs $75. While most college students are not exactly tequila connoisseurs, the focus on expensive alcohol only adds to Oaxaca’s appeal. Because the restaurant is designed to make all its money at the bar, the food is not only reasonably priced, but also light, giving Oaxaca an atmosphere that sets it apart from New Haven’s old-world, fuddy-duddy restaurants like Scoozi or Ibiza.
But Oaxaca is still a serious dining experience. Right now, the restaurant, which opened during Restaurant Week, still only serves the few items on the prix-fixe menu (although they can now be ordered a la carte). Yet this selection of eight or nine options offers all the variety anyone needs at a Mexican restaurant.
Four different types of tacos, delicious veggie and black bean quesadillas, and the sumptuous presentation of guacamole custom-made tableside are balanced with more hearty options like steak and huge corn tamales garnished with cheese and butternut squash. Even the lighter options are as filling as a full meal when coupled with chips and salsa, though most items cost less than eight dollars.
I began my Oaxaca experience as I would at any Mexican restaurant — with chips and salsa. But the salsas reflect the head chef’s dual expertise in Indian and Mexican food, adding a unique twist that makes Oaxaca stand out on a block with at least three options for Mexican fare.
As a vegetarian and a die-hard fan of anything that includes beans, I basically cried tears of happiness at the black bean and grilled vegetable quesadillas. The occasionally overwhelming taste of black beans is perfectly tempered by the subtle flavors of aromatically spiced peppers and a slightly sweet salsa. Moreover, the food fills you up without feeling greasy or heavy, as tends to happen with vegetarian, cheese-heavy Mexican food.
But don’t worry, meat lovers. I went to Oaxaca with my boyfriend, who ordered the tacos, a six-dollar option that allows you to choose two of four varieties. The first taco, made with a chorizo and shrimp base, was light and refreshing, with an almost tart flavor slightly atypical of Mexican fare. He chose the pork-filled taco for his second option, which initially seemed like a standard, lowbrow choice. But once the meat had slightly cooled, the seasoning actually brought out another dimension in the flavor.
You cannot go to Oaxaca without trying the Sopapilla Cheese Cake — it’s actually to die for. Coupled with espresso, the cake is a study in oppositions: The slightly sweet cinnamon juxtaposes with the slightly savory cheese, and the hard pastry and creamy filling provide the perfect end to what will be a wonderful meal.
Now just imagine what it would be like with the $75 tequila.