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Oaxacan Cuisine Looks Poised to Make Its Mark With U.S. Diners

While Mexican food has long been a staple of restaurants in the United States, it has only been in the past few years that more and more non-Mexican diners have stopped lumping the country’s diverse swath of cuisines together as a single genre and started parsing out the details of its distinct regional cultures. Most notably, Oaxacan cuisine—often considered the heart of Mexico’s culinary culture—has finally entered the American spotlight. Second-generation restaurateur Bricia Lopez of Guelaguetza in L.A. is poised to further highlight the cuisine with this summer’s opening of Mama Rabbit Bar in Las Vegas, while Rodolfo Castellanos, chef of Oaxaca’s Origen, thinks about how the cuisine is seen in the Mexican state’s eponymous capital. "People knew about mole,” says Lopez of Americans’ impression of Oaxacan food when her dad first opened their restaurant in 1994. “But there wasn’t this conversation about how Oaxaca is root and soul of everything [in] Mexican cuisine.” That is part of the conversation she hopes to spark when Mama Rabbit opens: She sees Las Vegas as a place where she can show off her culture, not just to the diverse city of Los Angeles—which, she’s quick to point out, has long embraced her family’s cuisine—but where people from all over gather. "It has so much weight in perception of the world,” Lopez says, explaining that as an indigenous female opening a mezcal and tequila bar, she sees an opportunity not only to show there’s more to the drinks than shots, but to “bring the history of where it comes from to the forefront. To have a home there, on the same playing field as chefs renowned around the globe.” Mama Rabbit is different from Guelaguetza. Not so much a full-scale restaurant, Mama Rabbit will focus squarely on the drinks from Lopez’s home state and will offer only a few light bites. But the same thing that inspired her father to open their restaurant still pushes Lopez today: “It’s about raising the bar on what people should expect from Mexican restaurants and Mexican food.” When Lopez’s father first came to Los Angeles, she says he noticed a lot of his fellow country people there—as well as a distinct lack of places to find their native food. Lopez and her mother would go to the market in Oaxaca, gather boxes of local essentials—the plate-sized thin, crisp flatbread called tlayudas, chapulines(grasshoppers), and mole paste—and ship them to Tijuana, where her father would drive down and pick them up to sell door to door. Eventually, this operation grew into the restaurant it is today: a Jonathan Gold–anointed celebration of a rainbow of moles, a fiesta of corn dough in infinite permutations, and an ode to the deep, layered flavors of Oaxaca. In trying to characterize Oaxacan food, Lopez describes each ingredient as “treated individually to emphasize the flavor. Really layering ingredients that are native to Oaxaca … It’s not just about throwing ingredients together.”

Tradition Meets Innovation

But the ingredients, her story shows, were then—and are still—what drives Oaxacan cuisine. “The value is in the products, not the tradition,” says Castellanos. Whether the cooking is done over a live fire or by sous vide, the ingredients keep its roots in Oaxaca. Castellanos’s roots, too, have always stayed in the state. After culinary school, he received a scholarship to cook in Monaco, then cooked in French restaurants, followed by a stint at the French embassy in Mexico City, before ending up at Jardinière in San Francisco. But Castellanos says he felt the pull of Oaxaca: It had always been his inspiration, and he felt he owed it to the cuisine that had earned him his scholarship to come back and share what he had learned in his home state. "I wanted to open a restaurant and use Oaxacan ingredients,” Castellanos says of what drove him to open Origen seven years ago. These days, eating local products is a worldwide trend, Castellanos says. “That’s the daily basis of living in Oaxaca … We just have to do whatever we used to do on a daily basis, because that’s what gives us our personality, our tradition, and our stamp.” As Oaxacan food moves forward, the main factor Castellanos sees bringing change to the cuisine in its homeland is a move toward consciousness about how chefs use products—cutting trees for cooking with charcoal; depleting varieties of foods that are starting to disappear. “We will end up eating all the octopus in the world,” Castellanos says, noting that the price has gone from 90 pesos up to 350 pesos and that he has to get it shipped from far away. (He plans to remove it from the menu soon.) But Castellanos seems confident that the same traditions that have carried Oaxacan cuisine through history will enable it to survive the inundation of new ideas, new techniques, and any other obstacles. “We didn’t build Monte Albán last month,” he says, referring to the nearby ruins. “Everything is always evolving. There will be new things; they will come to Oaxaca. Or they’ll have the Oaxacan touch in other places.” Castellanos seems to see almost infinite possibilities for the growth of Oaxacan cuisine, the world’s knowledge of it, and interesting new permutations of the traditional ingredients. “But I don’t think we’ll see a mole burger,” he says, laughing. “At least I hope not.”