It’s not often that the perfect opportunity for comparison drops in my lap… Such thing occurred last week when I met one friend for lunch at la Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard, and then that very same evening other friends suggested Queen Anne’s Mezcalaria Oaxaca for dinner that night. Now, being the clever readers you are you’ll already have noticed the similarity in those two names, even before learning that they are indeed sibling restaurants. I didn’t even spill the beans about my lunch location to Aran because I was sure that he’d have suggested another locale – to spare me an overdose of Oaxacan fare – because I was looking forward to this perfect chance to compare the two.
In fact, we had tried to eat at Mezcalaria Oaxaca one other time, when it had been open just a few months, but as luck would have it we chose Halloween night and although the wait for a table was the same (about 45 minutes), the cacophony of the bar area and the subsequent challenge presented by shouting one’s drink over the bar to its tender, prompted us to go elsewhere that evening. This time we got there a little earlier, so we were able to get four spots at the stand-up counter in the front bar area. With this big space up front, wall-affixed two-seaters, and a long bar ringed with fixed stools, it almost seems as though this location is making up for the tiny bar area at the Ballard sibling.
It’s the dining room that almost seems to play second fiddle, all the way in the back and with something less than 35 seats total in a very cozy space. This room, like the one out front and echoing the Ballard location, is ringed with beautiful photographs of different sizes, several mounted in dramatic lightbox fashion. Numbered curiosity cabinets, some filled and some not, are also a big part of the décor here. Overall I’d describe it as boisterous and happy-noisy, everything and everyone moving at quite a clip.
Despite the crowd this night, both food and drink arrived with surprising speed. It seemed that not five minutes after placing our big order, plate after plate streamed out of the kitchen. An important tidbit of information to file away, we decided: The kitchen at Mezcalaria Oaxaca, just like LCDO though I’d clearly forgotten, is not about pacing a meal. It’s not like at Lark, say, when you order ten small plates and the kitchen artfully decides that the sunchoke salad is best eaten with the carpaccio of yellowtail, and gives you time to do just that. Here, you order and it comes right out. Something to be said for immediate gratification, sort of like making your sushi selection as the conveyor belt rolls by your table, but not somewhere you’re encouraged to linger over your dinner.
A mere six hours before, I had been happily downing a plate of one of favorites from the LCDO menu, the mole with pork, rice, and small rounds of tortilla. I’m not qualified to say that this is the most authentic mole in the land, but for me it is the perfect combination of dark and sweet, with the hintiest hint of spice. That same mole is on the menu at Mezcalaria Oaxaca, this time as Enchiladas con Mole. I wished for steak that was a little less on the tough side and mole that was more pronounced, probably the least of my favorites that night. The Ceviche de Pescado and Tacos de Pescado were similarly flavored – both distinctly pineapple-y, interestingly – but different enough so that I didn’t feel that I was eating the same dish twice. The Gringas Oaxaquenas, combining barbequed pork and quesillo in just the right proportions, was the tastiest dish of my night.
I daresay that the food at Mezcalaria Oaxaca is much the same as the food at la Carta de Oaxaca, with a few twists on the original. Though to me the two experiences feel quite distinct – different neighborhoods, different interiors, different vibes. Both a raucous good time, though pick MO on Queen Anne if you want a slightly quieter back room dining experience…