Review: Oaxaca in Chamblee explores depths of regional Mexican cuisine

The food at Oaxaca in Chamblee often is surprising, as well as visually beautiful. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

The food at Oaxaca in Chamblee often is surprising, as well as visually beautiful. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

As more Latin American restaurants open around metro Atlanta, we’re getting the opportunity to explore those countries’ diverse, multifaceted cuisines in greater depth. Oaxaca in Chamblee dives more deeply into the dishes of its namesake Mexican state than any other place in town.

By focusing on Oaxacan food with such specificity, Executive Chef Gabriel Salinas’ creativity is unleashed in a way that feels incredibly fresh. Made using ingredients mostly from Mexico, and served by a staff that seems to feel a personal connection to the food, Oaxaca’s dishes often are surprising, as well as visually beautiful.

This menu is more art house than blockbuster: Not everyone will love every dish. Still, the restaurant does seem to have something for almost anyone, and the prices are reasonable enough that diners have the latitude to explore.

Patatas bravas, salsas and esquites de vegetales are among the offerings at Oaxaca. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

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Credit: Henri Hollis

Oaxaca provides some familiar items to get you started, such as the OG margarita, a salsa trio and guacamole. Rather than chips, whole, dehydrated tortillas were served with the dips. Dehydration, rather than deep-frying, gave the tortillas an incredibly light, crisp texture.

While the guacamole costs $16, it was a very generous portion of mashed avocado, onions, walnuts and lime. Scattered over the top was a tapestry of fresh herbs, radishes, jalapenos and edible flowers. It was beautiful, delicious and familiar, but with a few interesting twists.

Another shareable item, the ceviche de camaron, featured gently poached shrimp in citrus juices, and was topped with a salad of thinly shaved onions that were rendered sweet and mild by the citric acid, so they didn’t dominate the dish. Esquites de vegetales was another generously portioned dish centered on corn, an oft-maligned ingredient that enjoys a starring role on Oaxaca’s menu.

With that in mind, the next group of menu items are called masas, referring to the corn-based dough used to make tortillas and many other Latin American dishes. Included are such familiar items as gorditas and tamales, and some dishes seen less commonly in the U.S., such as tlayudas and dobladas.

The tlayuda de betabeles at Oaxaca is a crispy corn tortilla covered in roasted beets and tarragon. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

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Credit: Henri Hollis

The dobladitos de pato were like saucy tacos: corn tortillas folded in half and filled with duck confit, then sauteed and covered in salsa verde, crema and Chihuahua cheese. The tender, rich duck married beautifully with the tart salsa verde in a dish that was every bit as satisfying as a plate of good enchiladas.

Mushroom lovers should be delighted by the flor de calabaza quesadilla, which elevated the humble fungi with a visually stunning presentation. Stuffed with mushrooms and squash blossoms, the petals of the edible flowers extended from the edges of the quesadilla, like rays of sunlight. It was a good example of how the kitchen’s attention to detail takes interesting flavor combinations to the next level through the presentation.

Also beautiful was the tlayuda de betabeles, a masa dish that leaned on the polarizing ingredients of roasted beets and whole tarragon leaves. Some might not enjoy those flavors, but the dish was well-executed and gorgeous-looking.

Oaxaca's flor de calabaza quesadilla is filled with mushrooms and squash blossoms arranged like rays of sunlight. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

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Credit: Henri Hollis

The fried fish tacos at Oaxaca were excellent. Large pieces of flounder were coated in a thick, yet light, batter that was reminiscent of a chicharron. They easily were the best, most interesting fish tacos I’d tasted in years.

The service mostly was terrific, especially considering the restaurant’s prices. It did drag occasionally on our second visit, especially toward the end of the meal, but when our check finally came, the bill for four adults was just a hair over $200 before the tip.

That felt like a small price to pay for such an exhilarating exploration of Oaxacan cuisine. There are few restaurants where one can enjoy such an immersive, creative, thoughtful dining experience for less than $60 a person.

OAXACA

3 out of 4 stars (excellent)

Food: regional Mexican

Service: enthusiastic, eager but occasionally drags

Recommended dishes: herb guacamole, ceviche de camaron, esquites de vegetales, gorditas de chorizo y papa, dobladitos de pato, pescado frito, birria de res, carnitas de pato, papas bravas, platano macho, churros, deconstructed corn husk meringue.

Vegetarian dishes: salsas, herb guacamole, ensalada cesar, la ganadora, equites de vegetales, tlayuda de betabeles, tamal de hongos, flor de calabaza quesadilla, Mexican rice, black beans, Brussels sprouts, papas bravas, sauteed mushrooms, platano macho, churros, deconstructed corn husk meringue and cafe olla tres leches.

Alcohol: full bar

Price range: $$-$$$

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays

Parking: free deck parking

MARTA: half a mile from Chamblee station

Reservations: yes

Outdoor dining: yes; large covered patio

Takeout: not recommended

Address, phone: 5255 Chamblee Industrial Blvd., Chamblee. 770-450-4805

Website: oaxacaatl.com

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