A few weeks ago, I was ambling in the direction of Barceloneta, minding my own business, when I happened upon Oaxaca Restaurant and Mezcaleria under the colonnades of the stately Passeig de Marítim right next to 7 Portes. Above the door a hitherto unknown (to me) chef’s name, Joan Bagur, stands proud in black and white, and further investigation on Google tells me he hails from Menorca but spent the last few years in Mexico, working with the venerable Diana Kennedy (Mexico’s answer to Elizabeth David or, for Spanish readers, Penelope Casas) who is still alive and kicking, and head chef at Carmen Ramírez’s legendary Titita, in Mexico city. That’s some serious pedigree, certainly enough to turn my head and so, a few nights later, I gathered up a couple of friends known for their love of a good Margarita and we gave it a whirl. Bagur as it turns out is, in fact, an absent, executive chef, but he’s certainly imparted the ‘knowledge’. Not since a tequila-strewn road trip down Baja California back in the early noughties have I eaten anything quite so deeply authentic.
On the terrace, colonial-style tan leather armchairs suggest the lobby of a snazzy new boutique hotel, but within it’s all poured concrete floors and wacky posters against ruby-red, glass heart pendants dangling above chunky, tree-trunk table tops, and a sturdy Mezcal bar where you can drink your way through some 200 different strains of the stuff. I tend to think of Mexican (fondly, mind you) in terms of tequila shots and tacos, but this whole experience opens a window into a rather more grown-up approach and, dear God, it’s good.
First comes the drinks trolley loaded with several varieties of Mezcal and Tequila, served in shot form with a wedge of orange, sprinkled with sal de gusano (worm salt) that tastes reassuringly of chilli and smoke and wood. We sample three types (in tiny doses), one smoky as Highland malt, another sweetly aromatic, the third mellow and mild. Then we dive into Margaritas that come in those chunky, blue-rimmed, stemmed bowls that never fail to raise a smile. Add a smoky and hot, roasted vegetable pounded with chilli salsa in a giant pestle and mortar and served with ear-shatteringly crisp corn chips and it occurs to me that it might be the most delicious thing I’ve eaten so far this year. My friends concur. We call for more Margaritas.
A seabass ceviche is laden with velvety avocado, and is soothing rather than sharp after the chips and dip. It comes sprinkled with pea shoots, that lend freshness and vigour, and make a good counterpart to a rather more robust dish of carnitas—think firey, porky goodness—wrapped up in steaming, blue-corn tortillas. We have buttery cochinillo (suckling pork) pibil—a speciality of the Yucatan—that is slowly braised with smoky achiote chillies, sweet orange juice and oregano to create an unusual, but richly layered dish, that comes away as the tenderest pulled pork ever. And then there were the dinosaur bones. Or so they seemed to us. Think the shin of cow, split in two lengthways and baked until the marrow is soft and gooey, and then anointed with a piquant green chilli sauce. This is not a dish for the faint of heart, and it’s not one you can cover with the searing heat of an industrially made salsa and pretend its something else, but if you open your heart and mind to it, it really is quite wonderful. Above all, it tells you that something has shifted in the minds and stomachs of the Barcelona dining public and as a result chefs and restaurants are unleashing the grown-up stuff: the hearty, no-nonsense, regional dishes beloved of the international roster of specialist regional restaurants in places like London, Paris and New York. For that, Oaxaca is a game-changer, proving that ethnic soul food can not only work in this city of increasingly adventurous diners, it will be lapped up with gusto. What more can I say? Go!
Pla de Palau 19. Tel. 93 319 0064. www.oaxacacuinamexicana.com.
About €45 for plates to share plus drinks.