El Oaxaco
335 W. 4th St.
$5.50 – $9.00

El Oaxaco Restaurant and Panaderia in Oxnard is quite a unique experience. To the average American customer, it doesn’t say, "Welcome, come in and try our home cookin’." Upon entering, you will note its simple, plain yet authentic decor, similar to the eateries and markets of southern Mexico.

The cuisine here is so authentically Oaxacan (a state in southeast Mexico bordering the Pacific), you may be surprised at the unusual flavors and aromas enticing your palate. The first aroma that will probably draw you in is the warm, sweet, wheaty smell of freshly baked rolls. The smell of bread baking in any bakery teases my appetite, but at the El Oaxaco, it is particularly seductive. In fact, at lunch the other day I couldn’t wait for my first dish — I had to eat a fresh bun just out of the oven. The savory fresh wheat taste with an addition of sugary sweetness made this Oaxacan bread a hearty and satisfying amuse-bouche.

Next (and only for the adventurous here), we ordered the chapulines, a very traditional Oaxacan appetizer. There are no fried tortilla chips in this restaurant, but these salty, crispy, crunchy and slightly spicy small fried grasshoppers start your meal with an exotic taste sensation.

I was intrigued by the day’s special, costillas en salsa verde, which are short ribs in a garlicky tomatillo gravy, served with rice (nothing special here) and traditional Oaxacan refried black beans, dusted with small shreds of queso fresco.

While this dish was good, my companion’s tamal de mole de hoja de platano was much more pleasing. This amazing dish is a unique variation on the traditional tamale; the white corn masa was very light and flavorful — a thin layer of pounded corn masa around chilied chopped chicken in a blackened sweet mole, and then wrapped in a banana leaf instead of the usual corn husk. The sweetness of the banana infused its taste throughout the dish, and the combination of flavors was unbelievable.

The pièce de résistance (or plato principal) was our next dish, which we split (and still had lots to take home): the tlayuda con cesina. This most authentic Oaxacan specialty is a gigantic round, thin tortilla, about 14 inches in diameter (that reminds me of papadum from India), slathered in a thin coating of pork fat and black beans, and topped with shredded quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese), avocados, tomato, cabbage and a portion of tasajo en cesina, which is very thin, pounded pork shoulder smothered in chili paste —the taste reminds me of a chili-flavored jerky, but spicier and more unique.

Another specialty of El Oaxaco are the beverages and aguas frescas (the tamarind is particularly satisfying), but I think the horchata could be the best in Ventura County.  The sweet, cinnamon flavor of the rice beverage is served topped with chopped cantaloupe and walnuts. Absolutely sensational.

Do not go to this restaurant if you want anything fancy or quaint.  If you don’t speak Spanish, it might help to bring a dictionary, because the majority of the clientele is Oaxacan and comes in for that local deli kind of community feeling, and speaks a Oaxacan Mexican dialect.

If you begin your meal with those chapulines (the grasshoppers), remember that traditional folklore has it that that anyone who tastes this salty and legendary dish will always return to Oaxaca. Many of the Oaxacans who frequent this restaurant buy the mole to take to their own homes. Oaxaca is not called the "Land of the Seven Moles" for nothing. Mole, which gets its name from the Nahuatl word molli, meaning mixture, is a rich sauce that contains more than 32 ingredients, including spices, chiles and even chocolate. El Oaxaco Restaurant may not be familiar to your comfort zone, but if you are adventurous and willing, your taste buds will go on quite a journey.