When Edgar Caro was in the final stages of opening his restaurant Zocalo earlier this year, he knew Oaxaca would be the starting point.
It was there that a group of cooks — mostly women — taught Caro how to make mole, the region’s most celebrated dish. The inky, chili-tinged sauce is thickened with nuts and seeds and is variously loved, hated and misunderstood.
There are countless versions of mole negro. At Zocalo, which opened in the spot long occupied by Vega Tapas Cafe on a burgeoning strip of Metairie Road, a mole is draped over duck confit wrapped in tortillas and topped with white onions. It’s made with 33 ingredients including seven types of seeds, four types of nuts, panela and plantains, which add depth and subtle sweetness.
Caro describes the sauce as “complex,” which is accurate, but it doesn’t do justice to the delicious multifaceted dish.
That mole, and many other dishes at Zocalo, pay homage to the state of Oaxaca and its cuisine. But chef de cuisine Sean Rivera is careful not to alienate diners for whom the vast culinary landscape of Mexico is uncharted territory.
The menu detours from anything resembling Tex-Mex (no chimichangas or bowls of queso here), but the winding road passes through Mexico City, heads south and then to the ocean.
A tuna tostada is served with a colorful mix of shaved leeks, avocado and a chipotle tartar sauce. A Baja-esque fish taco features thick pieces of beer-battered Gulf fish topped with a bright cabbage slaw, and it evokes beachside shacks and begs for accompanying cervezas. Guacamole is studded with wedges of mango, which impart sweetness to the dish. Queso fundido made with oozing Oaxacan cheese arrives piping hot in a cast-iron skillet, studded with crispy bits of chorizo verde and folded into warm flour tortillas.
Soft blue corn tortilla tacos are filled with al pastor featuring fatty and golden marinated pork tempered by the acid of a smoky charred pineapple salsa. Cauliflower florets are served in a crimson slick of spicy peanut butter, quinoa for texture and nutty salsa macha, a delicious version with roots in Veracruz that delivers a lip-tingling warmth.
More familiar items include flavorful carne asada served on a platter with refried black beans topped with queso fresco, which on one visit was overly salty. Caramelized onions cooked in a chipotle mojo provided a nice contrast to the meat and a bright herb sauce added a zesty punch.
Carnitas is a classic dish of braised pork shoulder, and Zocalo serves one large piece with crispy edges that gives way with the prick of a fork. The generous portion is served with smoky pinto beans cooked with ham hocks, tomato-tinged rice, a creamy chayote salad and pickled onions that cut the pork’s fattiness.
Zocalo’s margaritas are fine, but there are more interesting cocktails that incorporate adventurous ingredients, such as a mule made with green chili-infused vodka and the tart and warming fermented tamarind tequila drink.
Caro is the chef/owner behind the Uptown Colombian-inspired restaurant Baru Bistro & Tapas. He and business partner Antonio Mata also run Basin Seafood and Spirits in Uptown and the upscale Latin steakhouse Brasa Churrasqueria, which is nearby on Metairie Road. At Zocalo, Oaxaca is the starting point but the owners plan to continue exploring Mexican regional dishes as they expand the menu. I can’t wait to see where they go next.