The World's Greatest Mexican Diner
Plus, It Has Every Kind of Mezcal in the State
You could call mezcal the new tequila, except it's not tequila, and it's not new (not to mention that if you did, you'd be one of those people who calls this the new that). While tequila is a kind of mezcal, the opposite is not true, and people in Oaxaca have been making it approximately forever. The bar at Queen Anne's Mezcaleria Oaxaca—the new sibling to Ballard's very-much-loved La Carta de Oaxaca—has every mezcal available in Washington State. Mezcal is probably a bit of an acquired taste, though if you always wanted your tequila to have both its own head-rush high note of alcoholic strength and a woody, smoky element like certain Scotch, you're going to love it. Good mezcal, like good Scotch, is eminently sippable; if you want to do shots of either, well, it's your life.
The bartender at Mezcaleria Oaxaca will also make you a mezcalerita ($9), a margarita made with mezcal (which is really best alone; this tastes like a margarita with a dash of Liquid Smoke). He is very busy shaking these and the house margaritas (a pint glass of Sauza Silver, lots of lime, not too much triple sec, $8) in the glow of the bar, which is right where you walk in, all warm and welcoming. (He will not make you anything blended. They do not have a blender.) There is so much stuff on the walls—millions of gorgeous photos of Oaxaca by local photographer Spike Mafford (the cowboy is exceptionally wonderful), mirrors, machetes, glass-front cabinets, metal funnels, an ex-voto painting (sadly, too high to read). Up above, there's an intimidatingly large taxidermied turkey. It's busy and bright, and music with lots of horns plays; the second you step inside, you're automatically having a good night.
If you've been to La Carta, you're not going to be surprised by how good the food is here, except maybe the goat. The barbacoa de cabrito ($13) is marinated in chili-magic, then roasted slowly in a shiny metal roaster in the corner of the back room. (You'll find the pico de gallo and two more salsas in the opposite corner; it's festive to sit back there, though it's lit more like you're operating on your food than eating it.) Over two dinners at Mezcaleria Oaxaca, the goat was the only thing I wished was bigger in portion—not that it's small, but you just want the entire goat. It's smoky but not too smoky, spicy but not too hot, with the right amount of orange grease; it pulls apart in tender, salty strands, with gold mines of melty fat here and there. Put some in a fresh tortilla (you can see the lady making them at the end of the open-kitchen counter, just beyond the bar) with a little onion and a squeeze of lime, and you have one of the world's best tacos in your hand.
The goat also comes with buttery crumbles of corn masa instead of rice, topped with a very hot sauce—for this excellent substitution, you may thank Gloria Perez, the head chef of both Mezcaleria Oaxaca and La Carta de Oaxaca. You might see her in the kitchen, slowly filling tortillas with ground pork with raisins, rolling them up to be fried and become dorados—her gravity is as reassuring as anything has ever been. Her son Roberto Dominguez manages Mezcaleria Oaxaca, and his brother Misael manages La Carta de Oaxaca; their other brother, Jesus, works at both restaurants.
But let's back up to when you are first seated. Your server (brusque but kind, possibly wearing a T-shirt that says "Casually moral" in cursive) will say "Chips and guacamole" ($5) in a way that's not really a question, because there is only one answer. The chips are of the shattering-thin, warm-and-salted variety; the guacamole is not too limey, not too chunky, nothing fancy, just right. Everybody ignores the option of refried beans as dip, but get those, too—it's worth the three bucks, for they are perfect.
Sometimes drinks take a little while, but meanwhile, it's bustlingly clear that things are happening. Mezcaleria Oaxaca is, in essence, an especially lovely, especially delicious Mexican diner. The best seats are (1) the ones along the kitchen counter, where you can watch flames bursting out of pans and pineapple dripping down onto a spit of meat (why didn't you order that?!), or (2) the tiny two-tops across the aisle, romantic in the way your own little island in a storm of busyness can be. (One of these has a lit-up curio cabinet with silver charms and crucifixes and a spoon that says "MEXICAN BORDER 1916," with stars and a sentry; this was right around when US tourism started, as American drug prohibition sent people across the border in search of their fancy. Nearby, there's the world's loneliest backlit photo of an abandoned airplane.)
If you've been to La Carta, you know that the food is much, much fresher and subtler than your average family Mexican spot. Instead of a congealing lake of goo, there's a sprinkling of crumbly Oaxaqueño cheese; instead of a blob of sour cream, there's a touch of crema Mexicana. The usually inundated, pedestrian dishes, like enchiladas, are different creatures under Perez's care. The waiter says the enchiladas verdes con pollo ($10) are his favorite menu item, and the green tomatillo sauce is bright and sparing and tart and hot, while the chicken inside is identifiably, flavorfully chicken, not just shreds of protein. Moreover, the corn tortillas taste like corn, which, in context, is kind of amazing. The sides are not afterthoughts. The rice is pale yellow and chickeny-savory; the pinto beans are quietly spiced and probably full of lard, plain and great.
Even the gigantic bowl of spicy-hot seafood soup ($13) isn't heavy, though if you eat the whole thing, you'll be sloshing home. It's a rich orange-red, and it tastes pristine instead of fishy; the broth is rife with specks of red chili, and very tiny mirrors of grease are scattered across the surface. It comes with a crab cracker for the leg of crab you'll find submerged in there along with un-overcooked shrimp and skin-on, spinal cross-sections of an unspecified white fish that falls off its bone like softened butter. The spice level is at the upper edge of what a normal person can enjoy—it wakes you up without making you cry.
In less spectacular but still very good eating, a bistec en salsa de tomate($11) is a much-improved version of the thin-sliced beefsteak you've probably ordered elsewhere, notably not tough. And a tamale with Oaxaqueño mole ($8) is made with soft and fresh masa, with the mole on the sweeter/less nutty side, and it is enormous—too much for one person, unless you really, really love a mole enchilada, but nice to share.
Look up when you're walking around inside Mezcaleria Oaxaca—if you don't, you might miss a hidden shrine or, where you're expecting a skylight, a secret golden photograph. And at the bar, don't overlook the sotol—"a pleasant, earthy cousin of tequila and mezcal," the menu says. It comes in a little footed goblet with a chili-dipped lime; the añejo ($8) is smooth and vegetal. If mezcal's not your thing, this may be more like it.
This article has been updated since its original publication.