all words: Riley Croghan
all photos: Stephanie Breijo
DC is home to such transitory things. Almost anyone you meet “from” here was from somewhere else two years ago and plans to be from another place entirely within a month—probably Brooklyn. For the inevitably homesick kids out there, Thanksgiving gets all the rep as the holiday that you can go back to your roots—but Dia de los Muertos offers an earlier and entirely different chance to entice things otherwise forgotten back to roost.
This week, we previewed Oyamel’s Day of the Dead menu, which will be available between October 17 and November 2, for those of you looking for a classy option for that second date to see what your new fling looks like when she’s not dressed up in a cat outfit. The new menu items for this year take inspiration from the monarch butterflies that return home to the Oyamel (of course) fir forests in Michoacan, Mexico, each year around the time of Dia de los Muertos. There will also be some live music on November 1, and since Oyamel is a small venue, you may want to get reservations for that well in advance.
Oyamel, created by food superstar José Andrés, fits right in with the other great Penn Quarter restaurants, and the restaurant’s focus on the tropical flavors of the Michoacan region instantly distinguishes it from traditional Mexican fare.
Our advice—learn to love mezcal*. The liquor, which comes from a kind of agave, is featured heavily on the drink and food menu, much to this reviewer’s delight. The first new drink on the menu, Jarritos, takes its inspiration from a common roadside drink in Michoacan. With mezcal, a take on “Squirt” soda, and pineapple, this drink is fruity but also a tad bitter, and thus should not be dismissed as a girly drink (you know you love those anyway). Another new mezcal-based concoction is their Harvest Moon cocktail. The drink is savory, a little spicy, and almost as filling as soup— it comes garnished with a corn husk, and includes grilled and fresh corn.
As the portions of food are antojitos (tapas) style and the Harvest Moon is served in a tall glass, adventurous foodies (redundant, natch) may want to order it mid-meal for the chance to fill up a bit while keeping your buzz going.
Of course there is also the house specialty, the Mini Oyamel Coopers, a take on margaritas as refreshing as it is practical. It comes topped with a salt “air” misted with mezcal, which neatly and deliciously solves the problem of constantly turning the rim of a traditional margarita to get to some more salt.
Another house specialty and a much recommended place to start your meal is the guacamole, which is created right at your table. Much of the food at Oyamel was new to me, but I am a man with a long history and love of guac. Oyamel’s is citrusy and tangy on top of the usual savory, and as fresh as you will ever get in your life.
The highlight of the menu for me was the Trucha.** This is trout, seared with a light and citrusy flavor, and your best shot if you order solely from the Dia menu and want something with a bit of texture. It comes accompanied with another quirk of Michoacan cuisine not usually seen in Mexican fare: potatoes, which are roasted in black garlic. Black garlic is an ingredient that made its way onto the US restaurant scene only a few years ago, and here it lends the potatoes a sweet, smoky flavor. A taste is more than enough to get you wanting to track down some black garlic to add to your own pantry.
One of the things Oyamel does best is their tacos, and the Dia menu of course features a new addition, the Chicharron, which is crisped pork belly and orange salsa. This is a fatty cut of meat that is usually served deeply fried and crisped, though it is presented here with a lot of the original texture still intact, with a lightly crisped exterior. You already know if that would be your thing or not– if, however, you are interested in a taco for the novelty and adventure, your best bet is still an Oyamel favorite from their main menu: grasshopper tacos.
Finally, the new desert is the Champurrado, which is ice cream served with warm Mexican chocolate, mezcal raisins (if you haven’t fallen in love with mezcal by this point in the evening, this dish will probably bring you there) and caramelized popcorn, topped with a champurrado “air”. Champurrado is a chocolatey drink traditionally served with breakfast, but lends itself perfectly here with a dessert that is sweet but not too heavy. The dessert is sipped rather than spooned, and you may be tempted to choose between it and the dessert drink, but you would be missing out on the best drink on the menu. The Platano liqueur has notes of cinnamon and vanilla, and for all the world tastes like a very adult take on a chocolate-banana smoothie.
Of course, as is always the case with tapas, the best solution is to simply bring several friends open to sharing and try a little of everything.
*The saying goes “para todo mal, mescal, y para todo bein tambien” or, for you non bilingual, “for everything bad, mescal, and for everything good, too.” We can’t help but admire the sentiment.
**Stephanie preferred the pulled pork mini tostadas, which would merit a longer review here except that Stephanie got to them first every time they came around on a tray. Very addictive.