Zach B., Yale University
In a college town, restaurants have to find a niche market. An establishment often has to choose between quick, low price meals for the college student on a budget, and more expensive long service meals for a special night out or for professors and residents of the surrounding area. Oaxaca Kitchen, a new restaurant near Yale, tries to capture both demographics, with relatively pricier options and an extensive bar facing off against casual Mexican fare. As a result, the food fails to find its voice.
On the back of the food menu, I found the drink offerings, an extensive treatise in American and Mexican liquors and cocktails. Oaxaca Kitchen clearly wants the young urban professional crowd to stop by and sample their drinks, full of whatever the cool libations happen to be these days. I flipped over again and saw that they offered mostly traditional Mexican standards with a few twists here and there. I decided to stick with the traditional, ordering two tacos: fish and pork with chorizo. For my entrée I chose the chicken with mole rojo, a specialty of Oaxacan cuisine.
They served chips with both green and red salsa. I much preferred the green salsa, medium heat with a vinegar-esque tang. The red salsa tasted like runny tomato paste with some chilies thrown in. The dish of green salsa quickly emptied, while the red stood untouched.
The service was quick and efficient, and soon enough, I had my tacos before me. Two golden brown crisp tortillas, filled with lettuce and tomato. They also served some sort of aioli to go with it, an unremarkable addition, the aioli did not add to the moisture or temper the spice, it just sort of sat on top of the taco, an unwelcome blanket of fat. Luckily, they served the aioli on the side, so I chose not to add it to the pork taco.
The fish was moist, but the chili spice mixture overwhelmed its flavor. In the end, I had no idea what kind of fish I had just eaten, only that it was a “fish” taco. The pork and chorizo taco fared better. The chorizo added necessary heat to tender pork housed in a sturdy shell that fractured at my touch. With the last bite of taco, I appreciated the lingering taste of pork fat and chili.
Unfortunately, my satisfaction was not to last. With the arrival of the mole rojo, I looked at a few small pieces of chicken, drowning in a sea of reddish brown mole. I expected some bitterness with mole, along with a subtle sweetness and considerable heat. Instead, the heat was mild, like a washed up baseball pitcher, throwing an eighty miles an hour fastball in the majors. While I enjoyed the smoky undertones, a carmelized sweetness dominated the flavor. Mostly I wished for more heat, even though mole should be tempered with other flavors, the green salsa they served with the chips was the spiciest part of the meal!
Oaxaca Kitchen never fully committed to its food. Tomato sauce for red salsa? Just serve me the green. Random aioli for a perfectly good pair of tacos? I prefer my chorizo unadulterated thank you. For a restaurant vowing to blend in Oaxacan flavors, the mole held back something critical. Not just the heat, but the overall complexity only made half the journey. Oaxaca kitchen has yet to find its identity, stuck halfway between a student hotspot and a hip city restaurant. Neither bold nor subtle, Oaxaca kitchen must find its flavor, or lose its place.
228 College Street
New Haven, CT 06510