photos by Danenicole Williams
by Janaya Andrews
Just around the corner from McClymonds High school stands one of the most intricate, colorful and bold murals in West Oakland with corn husks, a wizzened farm worker, white doves and artisan cloths– the exterior of Tamales la Oaxaquena, a new Mexican restaurant which opened last month.
The food inside is as exquisite as the art outside, and as subtle and bold.
Tamales la Oaxaquena is the real thing, with genuine Oaxacan moles. It’s a great addition to restaurants in West Oakland, with more variety than the food trucks, as good as they are, and a personal touch in everything from cooking fresh tamales to the serving cold lemonade by its mother-daughter owner-chefs, Rosa Oliva (an ex-seamstress who learned to make mole at the age of 8) and her daughter, Carolina Santos.
Competing with the corner store (and its equally stunning mural), which offers fried chicken, corn dogs and french fries, this new Mexican restaurant hasn’t captured its share of local traffic.
For now, the traffic coming from McClymonds is minimal. Shamorra Washington, 16, said “I guess like everyone else at Mack, I go to the places I know, that are already on my radar.”
But Tamales la Oaxaquena attracts local residents and workers, especially vegetarians. At lunchtime, regular customers, Monica and Kelly, savored their tamales.
Monica said that her favorite food is the vegetarian tamale, made with corn husks with guacamole and banana leaves, but she likes the banana leaf because it’s more healthy and she became an vegetarian in middle school to avoid fats and unhealthy foods.
Kelly preferred the super burrito, chimichangas made by first toasting the shell and then melting the cheese, with mole, a special Oaxacan sauce with chocolate and hot chiles (the restaurant’s specialties are the smoky mole negro and a cinammon mole rojo).
Dropping in to grab a bite, Oakland school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge said she prefers the mole without chocolate.
Owner Carolina Santos said the signature dish remains the tamale. “It depends on whom we are serving: some whites mostly wants tamales and some Blacks prefer burritos.”
Part of the challenge is to satisfy both, using traditional spices and chiles as well as almonds and spicy dried peppers (guajillo, negro and arbol). These are the spices used by the indigenous people near Oaxaca, the Zapotec and Mixtec, with roots going back thosands of years.
The result is a flavorful meal, “juicy but always sweet and never beat.”