By Sharyn Alden
My cab driver impatiently straddled the lanes of Friday-night traffic on Constitution Avenue. Landmarks in the nation’s capital were blurred by steady rain, but the Department of Justice came into view, then the National Gallery of Art’s enormous sign touting Degas’ “Little Dancer,” and finally the Newseum’s sign for “The Boomer List.”
Moving off Constitution, we arrived at the heart of Penn Quarter, the corner of 7th and D streets NW, and Oyamel Cocina Mexicana (Oyamel to regulars), where only the most daring walk in off the street weekend nights and try to get a table without a reservation.
This trendy place brings out culinary aficionados hungry for honest-to-goodness, authentic Mexican street food called “little dishes.”
Now, about that name, Oyamel. It comes from butterflies – the millions of monarch butterflies that in winter rush from the U.S. and Canada to the Michoacan Mountains of central Mexico and cluster on the sacred oyamel fir tree. To butterfly lovers, the oyamel trees seem to be lavishly, almost ostentatiously, covered in gold. To D.C. diners, the experience at their Oyamel is similarly theatrical.
The last time I was there, a brightly dressed couple holding French bulldogs named Humphrey Bogart and Anderson Cooper moved away from the doorway so I could enter the restaurant. Inside, paper monarch butterflies dripped from the ceilings, black-and-white Spanish films were playing on small screens, and quirky cocktails were wrapped in diners’ hands at almost every packed table.
The look, the drinks and the food are the creations of Spanish-born Jose Andres, Oyamel’s chef and owner. Oyamel is one of several restaurants Andres owns through his ThinkFood Group venture, and a big reason why he was named one of the 100 most influential people in the (food) world by the James Beard Foundation in 2012.
Oyamel’s outlandishly dramatic atmosphere might seem to scream “DC insiders only,” but it’s easy to get in the groove here. It starts as soon as you’re escorted to your seat and your waiter comes on stage. He’s your ringmaster for the evening, and an expert at drumming up fun – especially if you’re used to servers whose preferred look is the Pablo Picasso fish eye.
Each visit to Oyamel is different due to the server’s food-and-drink recommendations, and the menu is so varied that you’re not likely to run out of new things to try.
Our server, Robert Elias, was as good an advertisement for Oyamel as you could want. He eats there as often as he can, including every meal when he’s on duty, and so he knows his way around a menu that’s challenging for first-timers.
He started by making us perfect guacamole at our table, expertly mashing several of the approximately 750 avocados the restaurant goes through daily.
Each of us ordered a different classic cocktail. Mine, the Vallarta, was blended with cava, hibiscus-infused Aviation gin, St. Germain and lemon ($11). It had the flavors and aroma of another place in time, maybe somewhere on the Algarve during the 1920s, with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda holding court at the next table.
Next up, each of us ordered three little plates – which, depending on how hungry you are, could be considered too much food.
I especially liked the grilled fresh cactus paddles ($7.50) and traditional folded corn tortilla with Chihuahua cheese and Roy Burns Farm Mexican corn truffle ($9), which reminded me of a Swiss raclette.
One of my dining companions, a local and a regular, was happy to find chapulines, one of his favorite dishes, on the menu and in season. This is the legendary Oaxacan specialty of shallots, tequila, guacamole … and sautéed grasshoppers. Rest assured: However you think grasshoppers taste, they don’t taste like that – not in this dish, anyway.
We didn’t have time for dessert, though the selection was invitingly creative. Next time I’m going to try the brazen “For Women Only and a Few Strong Men” combo, with vanilla custard, grapefruit and Paloma ice, or perhaps the traditional rum cake and three milks, with rum-milk and pineapple salsa topped with caramel ice cream.
From a meal of high theatricality and great taste, there was only one way to go: to the theater. We chose the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, at 900 F Street NW. The legendary mashup of thespianism and philanthropy, started in a church in 1980, was presenting a play, The Pajama Men—Just the Two of Each of Us, while simultaneously holding a kids’-pajama drive. It was rollicking good fun – just like the meal, from cactus to grasshoppers, had been.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, based in Madison, Wis.
Photos from the author and Thrlive.com.