LA CARTA DE OAXACA Holy frijoles! It’s mole! Victoria Renard
La Carta de Oaxaca
5431 Ballard Ave NW, 782-8722

Tues-Sun 5-10 pm.

"Who's that guy?" asked my friend June. She was pointing, gape-mouthed, at an imposing light-boxed photograph of a stern-looking man with a string of chiles around his neck. I don't know who he was, but I'll bet he's from Oaxaca. The rest of La Carta de Oaxaca's walls were covered with other glowing photos from the southern Mexican state, both in sensitive black and white and earnest color: architectural details from Monte Alban and Mitla, a mural of Benito Juárez, and abundant market displays. It was all very Lonely Planet, and since we live in a Lonely Planet kind of town, it was packed.

As one of the first regional Mexican restaurants around here, La Carta de Oaxaca wants very badly to show that it's different from ordinary Seattle Mexican; hence the vaguely instructional feel to the décor. No adobe-colored walls, no serapes, no ÁAy Caramba!-colored oil cloth. Too bad, though, that the atmosphere, with its bright lighting and clattering hard surfaces, is about as soothing as a train terminal.

But I am delighted that we have a restaurant specializing in Oaxacan food at all. I became kind of obsessive about it when I lived in L.A., where I was astounded by the nuances of the moles, those incredibly complex sauces (15-50 ingredients!) that Oaxaca has made famous. When I went to Oaxaca for real four years ago, I nibbled on salty grasshoppers and sipped soup made with squash blossoms and tried at least four of the seven famous Oaxacan moles.

If Oaxaca is Mole Central, how are the moles at La Carta? Well, when I ate there, only one was available, the inky mole negro. Some black moles I've tasted have a hint of char to them, to balance out the sugar and chocolate in the sauce, but La Carta's sticks to sweeter notes. It's delicious and mysterious, but a little soft when on plain poached chicken and rice ($8). It seems to take on new life, however, inside a flat tamale scented with the herby aroma of a banana-leaf wrapper ($5).

June was all about the albóndigas (meatballs in a soup, $5), and hovered over her bowl lovingly. "They're lighter than air," she said as she blew on a bit of meatball. I clamored to taste them, and I'm afraid I interrupted her albóndiga moment; her faced dropped a little as she passed the bowl my way. Indeed they were light, like matzo balls made with club soda, and I wondered what fatty secret made them so delicate. After my bite, I guiltily passed the bowl back to June, ashamed that I had hid my greed behind a curtain of professional interest.

The dish that blew us away was not the mole, but birria, a lamb stew ($8). We shoveled the tender lamb and its bricky chile sauce into our well-seasoned rice and wrapped everything in our fresh, fragrant tortillas (which were so lovely that we ordered a second round). It's worth noting that portions at La Carta aren't tapas-tiny, but they are modest--three of us could have happily doubled up on birria.

La Carta's cooks also have a knack for stuffing things: We put off chiles rellenos ($7) and fried quesadillas ($4) for next time, but did try a big tortilla empanada ($5) filled with chicken and a "curry" sauce that tasted mellow and tangy, if not especially curried--I think it was actually yellow mole, but I might be wrong. The molotes ($5) were fried tortilla cigars stuffed with potatoes and sausage and decked out with the usual: guacamole, salsa, and cheese. I scalded my tongue the first time I bit into one, but when I tried again, I was pleased, dabbing each bite with a different garnish from the salsa bar. (Who doesn't love a salsa bar?)

As I cooled my tongue on a flan, I realized I'd made it through a whole sit-down Mexican meal without any of my favorite meat, pork--at least the perceptible kind. Who knows what lardy magic may have made the black beans so silky and the mole so rich? Suffice it to say, I had a very nice meal, but next time I go back, the little piggies better watch out.