Everyone knows Oaxaca chocolate is sublime. The chocolate at Mama Pacha Chocolate Shop is sublimest. I must use the superlative here for many reasons: Unparalleled quality cacao beans to start with, the chocolate is small batch roasted, tempered for hours, resulting in a smooth as silk finish. Different from the sugary, grainy chocolate we use in the villages for mole and hot chocolate. This is EATING chocolate.
Last night, Chef Mario Ruben Ramirez Lopez treated twelve of us to an over-the-top four-course chocolate dinner hosted by Antonio Michelena, founder of Mama Pacha. This was a Pop-Up. A one-night stand. Over in three hours. From appetizer to dessert, the tastes were sensational. Toño provided the chocolate. Mario provided the culinary adventure.
Mario is from Santiago Juxtlahuaca in Oaxaca’s Mixteca region. Cooking is in his blood and honed in Oaxaca city. He is building a name for himself and all accolades are deserved. Keep your eyes open for the next pop-up opportunity to eat what he creates.
This night, our first course was a chocolate tetela. This is a pancake made with masa (corn meal). In our case, the masa was infused with chocolate and the pancake filled with minced beef. The topping was startling: a blood-red beet and white chocolate molé, the beets and chocolate puréed into a flavorful paste that could stand on its own. The dish was adorned with arugula and broccoli flowers.
Mario told us he named this dish Yalitza after the Mixtec actress who starred in the film Roma. The color of the molé is like Hollywood, but it tastes like the Mixtec people, he said.
Okay. What’s next? A soup course poured from a jicara bowl — Chile Atolé Con Chocolate. Traditional atolé is a pre-Hispanic beverage of toasted corn meal and cacao, and sweetened. Mario adapted this to become a savory broth, adding chile pasilla and pouring it steaming hot over a nest of pickled red cabbage and organic corn kernels. Yummy. It had started to rain by then, that early evening Oaxaca summer downpour that turns humidity to fresh air. A chill entered the small workshop space given over to dining room. At that moment, the soup was perfect.
Bellies filling. Pour another glass of red wine. Pass the basket of fresh made sourdough bread from Pan Con Madre. Take a breather. Connect with our table-mates: a U.S. caterer/cook, a Columbian chef, a linguist, a jewelry maker, a food culture guide, a James Beard finalist cookbook writer, visitors from Australia and Ecuador.
From an infinitesimal corner of the space emerges plates of Molé Coloradito with chile pasilla from San Pablo Villa de Mitla. Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales (central valleys) are the source material for our food. Corn, for example, was first hybridized here over 8,000 years ago. The molé puddled on the plate, an underskirt for Oaxaca polenta made with cacao butter and mezcal, topped with whole shrimp and verdolagas –aka purslane.
The ultimate dessert was, of course, a molten Mama Pacha chocolate brownie, topped with quesillo cheese ice cream with fresh mango sauce. The chocolate bits on top were crunchy, sending me to the moon.
Need I say more?
Oh, other than this extraordinary meal was priced at 550 pesos per person, including wine. It’s no wonder why so many visitors are flocking to Oaxaca.
The cuisine here has always been exceptional, delicious, noteworthy and a full-mouth sensation — course after course, from humble street food, to worthy comedors, to elegant dining rooms. Traditional food is evolving into experimentation — taking the basic ingredients we know and love here and giving us one more surprise.