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Restaurant Review: Oyamel (Washington D.C.)

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One of the things I miss most about my hometown of Philadelphia that doesn’t exist where I currently live is an upscale Mexican restaurant. While Pittsburgh certainly has a plethora of Mexican restaurants, the menus generally consist of the same items-tacos, burritos, and enchiladas along with your ubiquitous arroz y frijoles (rice and beans). So when researching restaurants to eat at during our weekend getaway to Washington D.C., I knew where I wanted to eat at as soon as I saw the menu for Oyamel.

Oyamel is owned by famed Spanish chef and restauranteur Jose Andres, who also owns several other restaurants in Washington D.C. Oyamel is located in the city’s Penn Quarter section, only a couple of blocks away from our morning destination at the International Spy Museum. I had made reservations for 12:30 PM on a Saturday and when we first arrived the restaurant was only moderately busy. However, towards the end of the meal, most tables looked to be taken,  so it appears that Washington is both a late dinner and late lunch city.

I cannot begin to say how much I loved the decor of Oyamel. Although a lot of Mexican restaurants in Pittsburgh are certainly decorated “festively” featuring native style art work and bright colors, to me it always looks “childish.” However, Oyamel’s look was more sophisticated. The ceiling over the bar area was adorned with a bed of bright orange marigolds, a symbolic flower for the Mexican holiday of Day of the Dead. Butterflies made out of metal (butterflies are big in Mexico especially with artwork) also adorned a ceiling area, along with my favorites, Day of the Dead style calaveras (skeletons). There is also a ceviche bar  you can peek at from outside.

The first basket of chips and salsa is complimentary although should you be craving guacamole, it can be prepared tableside. I passed on this as I am not the biggest fan.

For drinks, D opted for a Mexican beer while I went with an agua fresca and luckily for me, it wasn’t sandia (watermelon) but rather mango. (I’ve had a lot of watermelon agua fresca as of late.)

Luckily for us, we dined at Oyamel when Restaurant Week in Washington was still “unofficially” going on (Oyamel offered its Restaurant Week lunch and dinner menus for an additional week). As we had dined at Fogo de Chao for dinner the day before, I had decided on eating at Oyamel for lunch. Its Restaurant Week lunch menu was a supreme bargain-for $20.13 you got three dishes plus dessert (dinner was still only $35 for a four course meal). In a major city like Washington D.C. at a hip establishment like Oyamel, that is quite the deal. (If there is a Restaurant Week in your city, be sure to take advantage.)

The first two dishes were antojitos, which in Spanish means “little snacks” (two dishes from two separate categories-antojito 1 and antojito 2).

I have wanted to try nopalitos (the prepared pads or leaves of the prickly pear cactus) for the longest time. Being such a lover of all things Mexican I was ashamed that I never had, although as I mentioned above regarding the menu options here in Pittsburgh, prickly pear cactus isn’t one of them. The baby cactus salad came with tomatoes in a lime dressing. After having tried it I will say that cactus definitely has a unique taste to it (go figure). I’m not sure it’s something I would eat again but it’s one of those food items I can now cross off the culinary bucket list.

For his antojito 1 selection D went with the sopa de tortilla (tortilla soup). I have tried/made different versions of tortilla soup over the years but from the spoonful I tasted, the version at Oyamel might just be my favorite. It was a very rich and creamy soup and that probably added to its sublime taste. It was garnished with tortilla strips, queso fresco (cheese), avocado and cilantro.

I chose the tamal verde, a tamal with green sauce of tomatillo, shredded chicken breast, garlic, chili, and cilantro. This I really enjoyed as I am a huge lover of green sauces in Mexican cooking.

D selected the camarones al mojo de ajo negro, shrimp sauteed with shallots, arbol chile, poblano pepper, lime and sweet aged black garlic. Although I know this was probably the most exotic shrimp dish he had ever eaten before, he seemed to enjoy it.

The third course consisted of your choice of tacos. I went for the Yucatan style taco (barbecued pork with Mexican sour orange and pickled red onion) whose Spanish name is cochinita pibil con cebolla en escabeche. D opted for the taco nortena, a version from the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon which featured a house-made corn tortilla stuffed with shredded beef in an ancho chile and cumin sauce with a Mexican salsa consisting of tomatoes, cilantro, onion, and serrano chiles. Although they were incredibly messy, I think we both found them to be fantastic, far beyond your standard beef and chicken tacos. I also loved how they were served.

Last but not least was dessert  where you had two selections-pastel de tres leches con piña-a traditional cake soaked in Coruba rum and three kinds of milk, with a rum and milk foam and served with a scoop of caramel ice cream OR flan de camote-sweet potato flan with a Honeycrisp apple sorbet and tamarind sauce. I had the latter, D the former. Mine was excellent and the perfect size.

I greatly enjoyed my meal at Oyamel and it’s no surprise considering the worthiness that comes with the Jose Andres name. Service was excellent, the food even more so. There are cities I  wouldn’t mind living in and Washington D.C., for its impressive array of food selections, is one of them.

More in this series!

1st Travels of 2013

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

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