PHOTO: Shannon DeCelle
Philip St. (at Madison Avenue), Albany, 433-7240. Serving
Tue-Fri 11-8, Sat-Sun 4-8. AE, MC, V.
price range: $5 (hamburger) to $10.75 (steak encebollado)
ask me what I recommend,” says Casa Oaxaca co-owner James
Santaski. “I tell them to stay on the right-hand side of the
menu.” On the left-hand side are “north of the border favorites”:
gringo food, the burgers, wraps and such. On the right: items
that seem initially familiar, items like tacos, tostadas and
tamales, until the ingredients and preparation reveal more
complexity than usual. And by usual, I mean as presented in
the Americanized version of Mexican restaurants that have
become the norm.
The only precedent we’ve had for this cuisine came from one
of the previous tenants of this space, La Familia. That restaurant
was a labor of love for hard-working Francisco Vazquez, who,
in one of life’s comic ironies, also worked for Fresno’s at
the time. Both places closed, so when Santaski and his partner,
Fransisca Vidal, bought the restaurant, they were able to
hire Vazquez and his wife, Nora Ramirez, to oversee the kitchen.
That’s why the current menu will look familiar to Familia
fans. Which also means we once again have recipes featuring
rich, dark mole, sauce made from Oaxacan chocolate
that is taken in a flavor direction where sweetness isn’t
a significant factor. A palate-filling complexity takes over
instead and, when combined with a simple chicken breast sauté,
you dine on a dish that’s sui generic—certainly without
precedent in roadside America’s menus.
It is, in fact, pollo con mole ($9.50), and the sauce
includes flavors of huajillo chiles and avocado leaves,
imparting enough spice heat to make the flavor journey memorable
without being distracting.
You know from the moment a basket of tortilla chips hits your
table that something different goes on here. Homemade chips
are fatter and, to my mouth, crunchier than the store-bought
stuff, and when the salsa is fresh, no commercial product
can touch it. Order a side dish of guacamole ($1.50), an avocado
purée that contrasts with the salsa’s rough-chopped nature,
and you can glory in even more of the real thing.
You won’t be distracted by ambiance. Casa Oaxaca sits in a
small corner location on Madison Avenue, just down the hill
from the Empire State Plaza. A take-out counter is your first
stop inside, behind which is a blackboard listing daily specials.
The L-shaped room beyond has fewer than a dozen tables, tables
as plain as the ceiling and walls, livened by posters and
other ornaments that have an added-on air.
Santaski was infectiously welcoming when I arrived for dinner,
generous with his time and information as I awaited the rest
of my party. That’s when I learned that he is an American
kid with a Mexican mom, who developed a love for the cuisine
both at home and during family visits across the border.
He went into the restaurant business, spending several years
at Caffe Italia, among other local venues, so the Casa Oaxaca
menu adds an extra sense of coming home.
You can ease into hard-core Mexican fare with the north-of-the-border
burritos, combining chicken or beef with lettuce, tomato and
cheese ($7 range). An improbably NAFTA-esque combo of fried
chicken, Colby cheese and Caesar dressing shows how far such
concepts can be taken.
After exploring the standard burger ($5), gussy it up with
bacon, onions, mushrooms and avocado slices ($7); a Texas-style
quesadilla grande ($8.60) puts steak or chicken in the tortilla
But that’s not why you’re here. You want a hit of that tasty
Oaxacan cheese, in the hefty vehicle of a chimichanga ($9.75),
perhaps. This is what’s commonly termed a burrito: a big flour
tortilla wrapped around your choice of steak or chicken (both
boast marinade-enhanced flavors) and an oozing layer of the
abovementioned cheese, which boasts a comforting thickness
of texture. And veggies, and green salsa, and sides of rice
Sounds familiar, sure, but well- dispatched flavor components
inform these items with an extra robustness. This characterized
the tostadas we sampled, which are $2.75 apiece for the crispy,
flat tortillas on which lettuce, bean and avocado mounds are
built. Excellent chorizo, a spicy sausage, is one of the available
meats, with our old friends chicken or beef also available,
and you can indulge in a platter of all three, as we did,
for a mere eight bucks.
Quesadillas, made familiar through their use as bland bar
food, are revived here with the addition of Oaxacan cheese
and sprigs of epazote (three for $7.50)—or try them with mashed
potatoes and chorizo (three for $9). When I return, it will
be to try the tamales, cornmeal stuffed with mole and
chicken, steamed in corn husks or banana leaves (the latter
is traditionally Oaxacan), priced under $3 apiece and even
cheaper as a threesome.
I’d kill to have a place like this down the street from me
at lunchtime. There’s enough variety to keep it interesting,
even though, Santaski assures me, many customers wouldn’t
think of ordering anything but a particular favorite two or
three times a week.
Whatever Casa Oaxaca lacks in decor is more than achieved
in its food and friendliness; add to that the easygoing pricing
and you can be assured of enjoying yourself.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
couple of closings worth noting include one that’s
temporary, as the Saratoga Rose Inn and Restaurant
in Hadley closes from Jan. 13 to 25 to give
the owners a much-desired vacation. . . . The
final dinners at Park 54 in Clifton Park
will be served Jan. 12, and Mike and Deena Pietrocola
turn over the place to new owners who will install
Zaika, an Indian Restaurant, in a few weeks.
. . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland
(e-mail food at banilsson.com)