I resolved to eat more street food on this trip. I resolved to eat more cheaply. These are very easy things to do in Mexico. But dammit, sometimes I just want a fancy dinner. (Actually, like right now I want a fancy dinner.) And the city of Oaxaca has a ton of fine dining options so I knew I wanted to visit at least one of them for a little splurge of a dinner during our Mexico trip.
You won’t have any problem finding an opinionated article directing you to the must-visit food and drink establishments in Oaxaca. There’s La Biznaga, Casa Oaxaca, and Los Danzantes which appear on the tops of any “Best Restaurants in Oaxaca” lists. However, after reading the New York Times’s 36 Hours in Oaxaca article, I latched onto Pitiona, dug deep into research, and as with most things, became obsessed. I promptly made reservations here about a month ahead of time. I’m serious about fancy dinners. Sorry I’m not sorry.
Pitiona was named one of the 50 Best Restaurants in Latin America for 2013 and 2014. Um, wow, way to fan the flames of my enthusiasm for this place. The chef at Pitiona, Jose Manuel Baños Rodriguez, was born in the state of Oaxaca and has trained and worked at the (now-closed) best restaurant in the world, El Bulli. That is big time, you guys. The Mexican food-obsessed chef Rick Bayless called Baños Mexico’s most promising rising star. Do I need any more reason to go? Really?
Pitiona offers a 6 or 9 course tasting menu in addition to the full menu. (I found this review of the 6 course menu online before we left for our trip and became thoroughly excited.) I planned this rather extravagant meal (for Mexico, anyway) for our first night in Oaxaca. To fit in with the locals, I made a late res to be sure we didn’t sit down to dinner until 9 PM that evening. After taking a cold shower (our host didn’t realize that we would want hot water on our first evening in town I guess?), we got ready and headed out into the chaos that is Oaxaca during the holidays for a few pre-dinner drinks of tequila and cervezas.
Thoroughly loose by 9 PM, we arrived for our dinner super pumped and ready to be impressed. After 30 seconds of attempting to read the wine menu in Spanish, we decided that, fuck it, we’re on vacation, let’s just go with the drink pairings (the maridaje) for the extra 310 pesos. An assortment of wine, craft beer, and mezcal? Hell yes.
Pardon my inadequate descriptions of the food below and just enjoy the photos. We became tipsier and tipsier with each course of this meal and the servers’ introductions of the dishes alternated between Spanish and English depending on who brought the food to us. The presentation was impeccable, and the serving plates ranged from crazy flat and heavy dishes to old school metal bowls to actual bricks. The glassware was super lightweight and almost futuristic feeling. And I’m a fan of anywhere that provides a salt dish for the table.
I also appreciate that they give you two salsas and an escabeche to accompany your homemade tortillas… and even more, that they leave them with you throughout the entirety of the meal. You know, in case six courses isn’t enough.
Our first course was (sort of) half of an empanada filled with venison and beans. This was paired with a mezcal aged in leather. Oh yeah, I took notes about this meal on my iPhone and that’s how I remember these quaint little details…
The second course was shrimp marinated in lime, chili, and garlic with watermelon and a serrano gelée topped with peanuts and pumpkin seeds (pepitas) paired with a Mexican craft beer. Oh my god, this was so good. I started to feel like maybe this place was TOO fancy for me. Had I made a mistake? What have I gotten myself into? Who do I think I am, eating gelée in the middle of Mexico? Oh yeah, the beer was good too.
The third course appears to be a staple on Pitiona’s menu and is rather famous with its guests. This is a traditional sopa de fideos, fideos being the tiny little noodles in this tomato soup. The crazy thing about this dish are the capsules of liquid goat cheese floating in the bowl. The server instructed us of the proper way to eat these: break the capsule once it’s in your mouth for an explosion of cheese. Phenomenal. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s fancy-dinner etiquette to drink soup directly from the bowl.*
*Note: Etiquette rules vary by location and have many exceptions, especially on my couch.
Um, so for the fourth course, I just wrote “fish.” Way to go, Rachel. I do, however, remember that the server brought the fish in a smoke-filled dome to the table along with the mole sauce to serve tableside over the fish. I’ve never been served a dome of smoke before, so I was feeling very Top Chef at this point.
The fifth course was a suckling pig (woo hoo!) taco with avocado mousse, paired with a Petit Syrah. The taco was topped with crunchy chicharrones and a little radish and jalapeño garnish. This was the most approachable dish to us because um well, we’ve heard of a “taco” before and suckling pig is rather similar to pork belly. It didn’t disappoint. The taco was served on what appeared to be a round slice of tree trunk that doubled as the plate. Jesus, there was just so much creativity going on in this place! I honestly felt surprised at every
For the sixth and final course, we were served a dessert (on a block of wood) of chocolate ice cream and a crunchy flat disc of pastry spread with something like a mix of creme and meringue. On top, there were berries, edible flowers, and coconut shavings. Whatever that pastry thing was… um, wow, it was really good. An almost savory and great crispy contrast to the rest of the dessert. Instead of these two items going together, I felt like I was being served two different desserts. BONUS! This was paired with one of those dessert wine things… (Somebody really needed an espresso after this meal. Or lots of water.)
This 6 course tasting menu was totally worth it. It was the type of food that we aren’t used to eating at home (and we eat a lot of stuff at home). The meal was predominately Oaxacan food, but made totally modern with lots of fun culinary techniques – smoke, gelee, etc. Actually, I’d say that’s the best description of this meal. Aside from “delicious” and “drunken,” it was really fun. Like we might have had too much fun during this meal.
Beforehand, Charlie said, “You’ve gotten me really excited about dinner. Like I feel like I’m about to go on a ride or something.” Well… this was totally accurate for our experience at Pitiona. Six courses, six drinks, all surprises. Order the tasting and the drink pairing and just sit back and wait for the next round. The service was great too – you could clearly tell the employees here had done this many, many times. And they did it with great English (for the most part) and cheerful smiles, keeping the multitude of food and drinks well-organized and flowing. Cue more drunken over-tipping and raving about the place.
Seriously guys, this was an excellent dinner.
Pitiona is located at 108 Allende in Oaxaca. Reservations are recommended. You can book a table through the contact portion of their website. They’ll confirm it via email. The 6 course menu is 610 pesos per person, about $42 USD, a much better price than we’d expect to pay for the same quality meal in the US. The pairing is 310 pesos, about $21 USD, and highly recommended as they know better than you what goes with what and you get to sample Mexican-made beer, wine, and mezcal.