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photo:Chris Shields

I’ll Take Oaxaca
By. B.A. Nilsson

La Familia

54 Philip St. (at Madison Avenue), Albany, 462-2190. Serving Sun-Thu 11-9:30, Fri 11-7. Closed Saturday! MC, V.

Cuisine: Southern Mexican

Entrée price range: $4 (burger and fries) to $10.50 (two seven-ounce sirloins)

Ambiance: small and unassuming

 

Cognitive dissonance is a term not usually applied to food service, yet I’ve just come across the most compelling example of the concept I’ve ever heard. Francisco Vazquez, who opened La Familia 10 months ago, has spent 17 years cooking for the Fresno’s chain. Seventeen years dishing ersatz Tex-Mex fare, which he now alternates with the cuisine of his native Oaxaca, one of the southern states of Mexico. Comparing the foodstuffs is like comparing Diego Rivera to Thomas Kinkade, the latter being a pale, populist imitation of painting.

Yet the menu at La Familia couldn’t be more unassuming. It’s intended to please any and all, with a page apiece of Mexican and Gringo fare. “North of the Border Favorites” gives you some burgers, with or without cheese ($4-$5.50), a couple of sirloin dishes ($10.50 each) and, in what strikes me as a swipe at the Americanization of Mexican food (why else would they be categorized on this page?), a quesadilla grande ($8.50) and a trio of burrito wraps ($5.75 with chicken to $7.50 with steak).

Although my dining companions and I avoided this side of the menu, I remain curious to see how these items are prepared. Because what we sampled from the Mexican list was so tasty, I’m suspecting an equally deft spin will be put on the anything that’s served here.

First: the location. It’s at the corner of Madison Avenue and Philip Street in Albany, a few blocks up from Lombardo’s and north of the Mansion Hill Inn. Parking is catch as catch can, although I managed to grab spots on the street each of the two times I stopped by.

The building itself is a simple storefront with a scattering of tables within. And it really is a family place. If Vazquez isn’t there to take care of you, his son Alberto Perez or daughter-in-law Magdalene Perez may take care of you. Or all three will be there, and I heard references to even more of the family.

Informality is the order of the day. You’re greeted as a friend, seated (if a seat is available) as you might be at a friend’s dining room table.

I was persuaded away from an American soda by the availability of Jarritos juice sodas, from Mexico, of which grapefruit is my favorite flavor ($1.25). I have yet to try the agua de Horchata ($1.50), which includes fruit and crushed almonds, and the agua de Jamaica, described as an “iced sorell tea drink.”

They’ll start you off with a basket of tortilla chips (fried in-house) and a spicy homemade salsa that packs a comforting kick. We also had a quesadilla to start, which are $2 each (or three for $5). Although I was most interested in the filling of mashed potatoes and chorizo, this combo was unavailable, so I went with Oaxaca cheese (which has the consistency of stiff mozzarella) and sprigs of epazote, otherwise used in tea. The tortillas on which this is placed are themselves homemade, so we’re even further away from what passes for quesadillas in the outside world. Me being me, I drizzled salsa on the aggregation, but it was perfectly delicious even without the savory addition, and certainly says what this dish can be.

That commentary, so to speak, increased as the entrées arrived. A chimichanga ($9.50) proved to be a generous-sized flour tortilla wrapped, as expected, around chopped beef, with salsa verde and Oaxaca cheese. It resembles that which you may know as a chimichanga, but it reveals a more complex flavor, aided in its own subtle way by the cheese, and a slightly higher kick of heat. This also informs the rice accompanying the dish, and there’s a serving of refried beans as well.

Heat also characterized the chicken à la Mexicana ($9.50), which proved to be the comeuppance of my wife, who believes that a chicken dish is the safest option on any menu. This entrée, which also can be ordered with steak, begins with a grilled slab of chicken breast that then hits the sauté pan with onions, peppers, and jalapeño slices, and it is the last-named that got to her.

Why this is so baffles me. I tasted the dish. It was terrific. The chicken itself didn’t declare any particularly strong or distinctive flavor, but wrapped as it was in the flavorful vegetables, it had a nice swirl of flavors around it. And the heat level, while pronounced, wasn’t oppressive. She says I don’t notice it anymore. I say she’s growing wimpier. Thanks to this column, I get the last word.

But let this be the last word: Oaxaca is famous for its moles (moh-lays), a sauce that balances the strength of chile peppers with the bitterness of chocolate. I asked Alberto what best would showcase a mole, and he suggested the enchiladas rojas ($8.50).

The enchiladas peek from beneath a generous coating of rich, aromatic sauce, almost burying the chicken-filled fried tortillas, and the sauce—along with onions and cheese—makes the dish. The accompanying wedge of beef (chicken also is available) is almost superfluous. And this is the dish, above all the others, that will persuade me back to the place.

You’ll find tacos and tamales and tostadas as well, but the food here merits exploration and you’ll be ably assisted in your pursuit. As the restaurant’s name suggests, it’s all in the family.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Mike Pietrocola, a chef with an impressive list of credits—he valiantly battled the curse of Schenectady’s State Street to run his eponymous restaurant there, and helmed the kitchen at the Clare before that—is back in business at a nice address. He has just opened the Park 54 at 54 Clifton Country Road, a building that has housed a few different eateries, beginning with the Conservatory Grill. The menu sports innovative New American cuisine, with such entrées as potato-wrapped sea bass, lemon-glazed chicken with roasted garlic and a monkfish and mussels combo, and there are 35 wines by glass and more than 80 bottles to choose from. 688-1548. . . . Albany’s Barefoot Gypsy Bistro, which had served creative fare in comfy, eclectic surroundings and was well-loved among residents of the Delaware Avenue neighborhood surrounding it, has closed its doors. We’ll miss the desserts, especially. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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