Category: Restaurant Reviews

A Review of OSS Madison

March 4th, 2014 — 9:18am

DSC02060I first learned about OSS Madison, the new sausage restaurant on Regent Street, through Lindsay Christian’s review in The Cap Times. An offshoot of Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern in Monroe, OSS Madison is a casual, order-at-the corner restaurant located next to the Italian Workmen’s Club in the space formerly occupied by the Careersmith office (near the corner of Regent and Park).

The entrance is on the side of the building, and the decor is dark, sleek, and industrial with copper tubes, valves, and tall glass pillars filled with glowing bubbling water framing the large front window. Seating is communal at large wooden tables. Water is served in mason jars.

The staff is welcoming and friendly. The bubbly woman at the counter not only took our order, she took us under her wings—prancing around the restaurant excitedly showing us the many unique features of the space. Check out the men’s bathroom—go in, no one’s in there, she prodded me. She was right, it was nice. The wooden walls give the small space a sauna-like feel, and there is a metal barrel interestingly anchoring one of the two sinks. She also pointed out pillars of stacked books supporting one of the tables in the dining room.DSC02061

Sausages are the focus of the menu at OSS, with standby “old school” sausages like hot dogs, bratwurst, and polish sausage. There are also “signature sausages” that rotate on and off the menu, and “open source sausages” based on recipes submitted by customers as well as local chefs. There’s plenty of beer on tap—I spotted Ale Asylum, Schlitz, Lake Louie, Spotted Cow, Karben4, Cider Boys, and Hacker-Pschorr.

We ordered the Chicago Style Dog and the Banh Mi (both $5.50) and a side of fresh-battered cheese curds ($4) with siricha mayo. I was also tempted by the Fundido (A Chorizo sausage topped with assorted Mexican cheeses, sautéed peppers, and tortilla strips) as well as the Dining Room, the current “open source sausage,” a pepper spiced pork sausage, topped with a roasted poblano sour cream, crispy tortilla strips, and fresh cilantro from guest chef Wave Kasparzak of The Dining Room in Monticello.

The food was quickly and cheerfully delivered by the woman at the counter. We split the dogs in half so we could try each. The Chicago Style Dog was piled high with tomato, relish, onions, pickle, celery salt, sport peppers, and yellow mustard. The Banh Mi mi featured a Vietnamese pork sausage topped with pickled veggies, cilantro, fresh jalapeños, and chili-mayo. Both of the sausages were well seasoned and juicy, though the Chicago Style dog was disappointingly cold. I most enjoyed the flavor and toppings of the Banh Mi—especially the cilantro and chili mayo. The volume of the toppings is a little overwhelming for the buns—it’s a difficult to keep it all in tact as you eat—but it all makes for a delicious and filling meal. The cheese curds were the most disappointing—especially the serving size (very small) relative to the price point ($4). They were a little greasy, and no match to others like my favorite at The Old Fashioned, but I’d like them more if they were priced more reasonably, say, $2 or $3. I loved the siricha mayo dipping sauce. But we both wished we had ordered another sausage instead of the side.DSC02056

After we finished our sausages, the woman from the counter was back again to check in and clear away our dishes. Then Co-manager Dustin stopped by to see how everything tasted and to ask about how we had heard about the restaurant.

I’m excited for the arrival of OSS Madison. The space is fun and creative, the food is solid and affordable, and the customer service is friendly and welcoming. It’s very apparent the restaurant is a labor of love for the managers, both in their mid-20’s. They clearly have a pulse on the college crowd, and are eager to market their restaurant to the throngs of people regularly attending basketball and hockey games at the nearby Kohl Center. I do think OSS needs a better, more descriptive, name for marketing purposes. Some may find it cute that they couldn’t settle on a name from the many options—Our Sausage Shoppe, Old School Sausage, Open Source Sausages—which all feed into the current acronym, but it seems like any of these would be more effective than OSS.

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Taste of the Market Breakfast – 2/1

February 3rd, 2014 — 10:41am

DSC01527Larry and I began this past weekend with breakfast at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Now at the Madison Senior Center through mid-April, the market serves a breakfast beginning at 8:30 a.m. featuring dishes with ingredients from farmers’ market purveyors. The meal is $8.50 and includes coffee and juice (either cranberry or apple cider). There are also smaller portions available at a reduced price.

We arrived later than usual—sometime after 9 a.m.—and found that we didn’t need to wait in the long line for breakfast that typically forms around 8:15 a.m. Unless the food runs out, I learned it’s probably a good strategy to arrive a little late.

This week’s menu was prepared by Michael Liotta from Salvatore’s Tomato Pies in Sun Prarie (which is great, if you haven’t been) and featured green eggs with arugula pesto, a savory breakfast bun with beets and feta cheese, green salad topped with pickled veggies and smoked trout, and a lavender cookie. Ingredients were sourced from Pecatonica Valley Farm, Gitto Family Farm n’ Kitchen, Hickory Hill Farm, Capri Cheese, JenEhr Farm, Don’s Produce, Artesian Trout Farm, The Gypsy Travlin’ Market, and Pleasant Springs Orchard.DSC01524

Everything was excellent, but it was the savory breakfast bun with beets and feta cheese that we haven’t been able to stop talking about since. It makes sense since Michael Liotta specializes in pizza—and these were a close relative. I hope to find a way to recreate them at home—they were so unique and delicious. It made me think how much I would love it if recipes from the breakfasts could be posted online or included in the weekly farmers’ market e-mail updates.

Last week’s breakfast (Jan. 25) was equally tasty. I forgot my camera, so I wasn’t able to take pictures, but it was a gorgeous and mouthwatering spread prepared by Laila Borokhim from Layla’s Persian Food. The meal included Sabvi Kuku (green vegetable fittata), crumbled feta cheese, semolina bread, Porsi (pickled vegetables), and lamb sausage patties. Apparently I need to get to Laila’s restaurant to try more of her fantastic home-style and authentic Persian food.

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La Taguara Worth A Return Trip

January 8th, 2014 — 9:53am

DSC00919We made our first visit to La Taguara just before the holidays. It’s a relatively new Madison restaurant located on East Washington that specializes in Venezuelan and Latin American cuisine. The atmosphere is colorful and welcoming, and devoted to celebrating the culture of Venezuela. Maps, clothing, and handmade art adorn the walls. Order-at-the counter service, a couple TVs and a self-serve Pepsi fountain machine provide a casual, laid-back experience. The menu is extensive, and thankfully, the woman at the counter quickly offered a few suggestions:

Entrees: Pabellon ($12.99), Bandejita Paisa ($12.99), and Cachapa con Queso y Cochino Frito ($11.99)
Sandwiches: Arepas ($4.99), Empnadas ($3.75), Pepito de Carne o Pollo ($9.99)
Appetizers: Tostones ($6.99), Yuca Frita ($6.99)
Beverages: Papelon con Limon ($2.49), Jugo de Parchita ($2.49), and Jugo de Tamarindo ($2.49)DSC00920

It was still hard to narrow it down, so we picked a few dishes to share. We chose the Cachapa con Queso y Cochino Frito (sweet corn pancakes filled with artisan handcrafted Venezuelan cheese, crispy pork accompanied with nata and guasacaca), the Arepas (hot bun made with ground white corn with a crispy shell and soft doughy inside with one filling of your choice), and because Larry was craving a hotdog, the Perritos (hot dog topped with diced cabbage lettuce, diced onions, potato strings, mayo, ketchup, mustard and guasacaca served with a side of french fries). And when we couldn’t decide on beverages, the woman at the counter generously offered samples of all three. We then chose the Papelon con Limon and the Jugo de Parchita.DSC00922

It was too much much food for just the two of us, but we did a nice job. I loved the Cachapa con Queso y Cochino Frito. Both juices were also excellent. The Arepas was tasty (and a great value at $4.99). The Perritos was my least favorite dish—but then again I’m not a huge fan of hotdogs. It didn’t seem all that interesting, especially given the other menu options, plus the bun was stale. I still have regrets that we didn’t try the Pabellon (Venezuela national dish with black beans, shredded beef, rice and deep fried ripe plantain topped with cheese and an arepa). Next time for sure.

Although the food was excellent, the most memorable part of dinner was when we were greeted on our way out  by Jeykell, La Taguara’s energetic and personable owner. He asked if we enjoyed our meal, which led to a longer conversation about opening the restaurant and his love of Venezuela, his home country. He told us that he hadn’t had a day off since the restaurant opened in August. It was great to meet Jeykell—he’s friendly and genuine, and his passion and drive were evident in our whole experience. I’m looking forward to getting back to La Taguara to try the Pabellon. And maybe dessert, too.

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A Slice of Thanksgiving

November 27th, 2013 — 12:08pm

Today I celebrated Thanksgiving with co-workers over pizza. But not just any pizza—Ian’s “Thanksgiving on a Pizza” with turkey breast, stuffing, green beans, mushroom cream sauce, cranberries, and crispy fried onions. Beforehand, I was skeptical. For as much as I love food, I’ve never gotten much enjoyment from Thanksgiving foods. Turkey, stuffing, cranberries, blah. And on a pizza? I wasn’t convinced. But one bite of Ian’s masterpiece, and I was instantly smitten. Somehow the jumble of toppings came together in an unexpectedly delicious way. Maybe I can love Thanksgiving foods after all.

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A Night Out With My Girls

November 22nd, 2013 — 12:59pm

pic12When one of my friends first approached me about the idea of a bachelorette party, my response was more or less hell no. When I think of bachelorette parties, I immediately picture feather boas, tiny tees bejeweled with the word “bride,” and necklaces with plastic male appendages. Not my thing.

But eventually my friend convinced me that it would be different. And so I agreed. And over the course of a month or so, two of my friends put together plans for a post-wedding evening out with my closest friends. Aside from the date, they kept it all a secret from me. I was excited. DSC00806

Last Saturday was the big day. Earlier in the week, one of my  friends sent me a message letting me know that she’d pick me up at 3 p.m. She also provided vague instructions on how to dress. On Saturday, two friends picked me up at the appointed time and we drove downtown. Along the way, they presented me with a wine glass customized with my wedding date and a short poem on back. They told me that I might need the glass for the adventures ahead.pic10

It wasn’t until we arrived at the Monona Terrace that I finally learned the plan. My friends were there, along with a tour guide from Madison Food Explorers, a culinary walking tour that bills itself as a “sightseeing expedition for your taste buds.” I discovered that we’d be spending the next few hours together on the Downtown Lake to Lake Tour. I couldn’t believe how perfect that sounded. Friends, Madison, and good food—now that’s my idea of a bachelorette party.

Our tour included several stops as we made our way from downtown to the heart of campus. We enjoyed Cuban sandwiches and cocktails at The Merchant, a sampling of Wisconsin cheeses at Fromagination, an impromptu wine tasting at Square Wine Company, Mac and Cheese pizza at Ian’s, a Mango Lassi (a yogurt drink) at Himal Chuli, a grilled bratwurst and Spotted Cow at State Street Brats, a malt (actually I had two) from the UW Memorial Union, and a little Madison history and architecture thrown in along the way.pic14

It was such a fun and unique way to experience Madison. I loved the food. And most importantly, it was a great way  for all of my friends who hadn’t necessarily met before to interact and get to know each other better.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get better, I found out we had dinner reservations (as if we hadn’t eaten enough) at Harvest, in a private dining room on the second floor overlooking the state capitol. It was a beautiful, intimate setting with incredible food and great conversation. And instead of fancy lingerie, my friends gifted me vinyl for my record collection—everything from 1969 by Pink Martini and Saori Yuki to Willy Nelson and Wynton Marsalis’ Two Men with the Blues. Our dinner went on for hours, and before we knew it, it was nearly 11 p.m.

I’m so thankful to all of my friends who put together and were a part of such a special evening. I felt so celebrated and loved.

1 comment » | Madtown Lovin', Restaurant Reviews

A Visit to Melly Mell’s

July 12th, 2013 — 4:40am

melle mell09I put aside my healthy eating habits last week to fully indulge in the ultimate soul food during my first visit to Melly’s Mell’s. All the reviews I’ve ever read, including this one by Isthmus food reviewer Andre Darlington, have been glowing. But I also knew that Melly Mell’s is notoriously hard to find. Luckily I had my expert navigator along for the ride. And honestly, it wasn’t too bad. Just take the Rimrock exit off the beltline, a right onto Badger Road, and Melly Mell’s is in the Genesis complex next to the building housing EZ Pawn and Pitchers Pub. The entrance is a nondescript metal door with very little signage on the left side of the building.

Once we made it in the door and down a flight of stairs, we were in soul food paradise. The expansive seating area is decorated with eclectic artwork and proudly-hung family photographs. A Luther Vandross CD was playing on the stereo. There were just two other diners there during our visit (also for their first visit), and Larry overheard them calling Melly Mell’s a “mythical place,” and a “pot of gold.” They struck up a conversation with us, and immediately began gushing about the fried chicken they had just devoured. In fact, it was so good, they had just placed a second order to take home.

Now I was really getting excited.

Melly Mell herself then pulled up a chair at our table. It’s difficult to find the right words to describe Melly Mell. She’s the kind of person whose presence fills a room.  She’s a gifted storyteller, and sat and talked with us for at least 45 minutes over the course of the evening, sharing stories about her family, growing up in a military family, and her past work mentoring underprivileged kids. Family obviously means the world to her, and her children and grandchildren popped in and out during the evening. Melly Mell proudly introduced us to all of them. As Larry guessed, Melly Mell got her nickname during high school from the rapper in Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. She’s the kind of person who can’t go anywhere without running into people she knows—and her conversations are rarely brief, something she admits drives her kids nuts.

Soul food is what Melly Mell does best, although she admits she can only eat it once a week these days. Although we were tempted to try the specials (tacos and enchiladas on Tuesday nights), we decided to stick with soul food for our first visit. We ordered the fried chicken and waffles, a catfish filet, and sides of black eyed peas, mac & cheese, greens, and yams. Everything was excellent. But the fried chicken was other-worldly—crispy and perfectly seasoned. Served next to a fluffy waffle dripping in maple syrup and melted butter put it over the top. It’s the kind of meal I now dream about. We were great eaters. Melly Mell admitted that we had ordered quite a lot of food and joked that the only way she was going to get us out was by rolling us out.

Melly Mell’s is the kind of gem I can’t wait to share with my family and friends. I just want to scream it from the rooftops—if you haven’t been to Melly Mell’s, then you haven’t truly lived! melle mell15

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Yue-Wah in a New Light

June 26th, 2013 — 4:36am

June 2013 091For several years, Yue-Wah Oriental Foods has been my favorite specialty grocery store in Madison. Located in the Villager Shopping Center on South Park Street, Yue-Wah is a family-run business that carries an expansive assortment of ethnic foods including Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian. When I’m looking for specialty ingredients for a recipe, Yue-Wah is always my first stop. It’s the kind of place I could spend hours, studying the rows and rows of noodles, spices, produce, etc. The prices are good, and the store is remarkably well-organized and clean.

Over the last several months, the family behind Yue-Wah accomplished an incredible task: packing up their 6,000 square-foot store (which was slated for demolition), and moving it to a brand new storefront next door. I have experience packing up and moving a one-bedroom apartment—but an entire grocery store? I can’t imagine.

During our first stop to the new storefront two weeks ago, it was weird to see Yue-Wah in a new light. Their digs are shiny and new. Most of the boxes are now unpacked and cleared away, and the transition seems almost complete. There are a few changes I noticed—for example, the produce is now located in the back of the store. But otherwise, it’s the same Yue-Wah I’ve always loved.

One of the owners seems to be having a difficult time with the transition. When we asked what she thought of the new store, she explained that, although her husband is really excited about it, change is really hard for her. They’d been in the old store for decades. With a small smile, she told us to ask her again in a few years. It was a rare moment of openness and emotion.

Go! Go explore Yue-Wah and it’s aisles of worldly foods. If possible, bring cash when you go—it really makes a difference for a small, family-run business. And in my experience, the owners are always willing to help—all you have to do is ask. June 2013 088

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A Sunday Ride to Riley Tavern

June 21st, 2013 — 8:55am

Larry and I hit the road last Sunday morning for a long bike ride. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and we had a mid-ride destination in mind. We took a 40-mile hilly and meandering route through Paoli and Mount Horeb, before finally pulling up to the Riley Tavern for a hard-earned pancake breakfast break.

Riley Tavern is nestled in the rolling hills of Verona and a popular destination for bikers—both the spandex and leather-wearing variety. It was my first visit, and I was excited. I had long dreamed of enjoying a plate of pancakes or a cheeseburger on the deck on a summer afternoon.

Before our ride, I read several online reviews for Riley Tavern. They weren’t stellar. The majority of reviewers mentioned the “crabby waitresses” and poor service. But other reviews seemed more balanced—it is what it is, the food is good and the atmosphere is great, but don’t expect any frills or bend-over-backwards service. Ultimately, the promise of pancakes helped me look past some of the more negative reviews.

When we arrived, the tavern was packed. It was Father’s Day, and there were many families enjoying breakfast. The bartender greeted us, took down our name, and invited us to enjoy a cup of coffee while we waited for a table. I filled up a mug immediately from the self-serve pots in back. After just a few minutes, we were seated with another couple at a table for four (breakfast is only served in the tavern, not on the deck). It was serendipitous, because we really hit it off with the other couple—Dan and Mary from Middleton. They were peace corps volunteers in Brazil in the 70’s, public television enthusiasts, and had a great zest for life and adventure. It was good conversation.

The pancake breakfast was simple, cheap, and tasty—$6.50 for orange juice (served in Dixie cups—refills upon request), unlimited coffee, four pancakes, and three sausage links. Pancake options include blueberry, chocolate chip, and buttermilk. I chose blueberry. And those crabby waitresses? I didn’t experience them, but the servers did seem to have a lot going on—they were running around trying to keep up with the breakfast crowd and seemed stressed. But overall, the service was fine.

It was a perfect mid-ride destination, and the breakfast was just what we needed to fuel ourselves for the ride back to Madison. And thankfully, we took a more direct route back to Madison—only 20 miles for the return trip.

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Pelmeni’s Downtown Madison Comeback

June 18th, 2013 — 6:04am

February 2013 031If you were a student at UW-Madison or a frequent visitor to State Street during the mid 2000’s, you might remember Pel’meni, the Russian dumpling shop that was located in a tiny storefront halfway up State Street. My brother and his best friend were UW students at the time and lived almost exclusively off the meat and potato dumplings famously topped with Sriracha sauce, chopped cilantro, curry powder and a dollop of sour cream. For college students in particular, it was the perfect meal for breakfast, lunch, dinner—and especially bar time. Sadly, the owner, Paul Schwoerer, closed up shop rather suddenly in about 2006. Devotees like my brother were crushed.

Thankfully, my brother found a way to recreate the meal at home—and that’s when I became hooked. The dish is now one of the best in my repertoire, and the only one I can remember that left my partner speechless.

As much as I enjoy making pelmeni from scratch, there are times when I just want to enjoy a plate without spending hours making and rolling out dough, forming dumplings, and cooking small batches in boiling water.

A few years ago, to the joy and relief of many, Paul brought pelmeni back to the Madison area and began selling them from an EVP coffee shop (now Oasis Cafe) in Fitchburg during lunch hours. But for students and other downtown Madison dwellers, Fitchburg is a hike. And the first time I made the trek, I arrived only to discover that they were sold out for the day. Oh, the disappointment. I returned a few months later to enjoy a plate of steaming pelmeni with all the toppings—a wonderfully filling and satisfying meal.

Thankfully, Madisonians no longer need to trek all the way to Fitchburg to get their pelmeni fix. As of this past Saturday, pelmeni is back in downtown Madison where it belongs. Paul Schwoerer celebrated the grand opening of his latest venture, Paul’s Pel’meni, conveniently located at 203 West Gorham, just around the corner from AJ Bombers.

The space is modern, clean, and swanky compared to the former State Street digs, but still relatively small and simple. There are five tables and a few seats along the window. The focal point is three giant, silver pots at the counter—where the pelmeni are cooked in boiling water. The menu is simple, as it should be: full ($6.50) and half ($4.50) orders of pelmeni, with your choice of meat or potato filling, or a mix of both. Paul incorporates local ingredients whenever possible, including Black Earth meats and local eggs.

If opening day is any indication of success to come, Paul is off to a great start. It certainly helps to already have a cult following. Saturday was a very busy day. By the time we arrived after 5 p.m., they had run out of sour cream and cilantro. Paul was very apologetic (and even offered us a free meal), but I was just thankful he still had pelmeni. Even without the sour cream and cilantro, they were delicious. We took our second order to go and stopped at Capitol Centre Market for sour cream and cilanto on our way to enjoy a pelmeni picnic overlooking the lake in Wingra Park.

My brother, who now lives in San Francisco, is very jealous of my new-found easy access to pelmeni deliciousness. I hope it will spur him to make a visit to Madison very soon. Pelmeni may be just the thing to get him on the next flight.June 2013 117

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A Culinary Tour of Oaxaca

April 6th, 2013 — 6:11am

A two-day excursion to Oaxaca was the highlight of my recent trip to Mexico with Larry, which also included visits to Veracruz, Córdoba and Ingenio El Potrero Nuevo, the hometown of our friend, Andrés. As a whole, this trip to Mexico was very different than the two others I’ve made that mainly involved lying around pools at all-inclusive resorts in Cancun and Acapulco.

Oaxaca is a beautiful city in southeastern Mexico that is one of the most well-known culinary destinations. I was eager to try all of its many specialties—everything from moles to chapulines (spicy fried grasshoppers).

For culinary inspiration, we drew largely upon recommendations from Rick Bayless in his Guide to Oaxaca. Admittedly, our first two picks from the list were a bust. Tlamanalli in the small village of Teotitlán del Valle (20 miles outside of Oaxaca, and seemingly Bayless’s strongest recommendation) was closed for part of Semana Santa (Easter week). And our second pick, El Naranjo, back in Oaxaca, has apparently been closed for three years. Clearly, the guide needs some updating. But, I get it, Rick Bayless is a busy guy. At that point, we were almost ready to abandon the guide, but thankfully held on for a few more recommendations. His suggestions for market and street vendors were particularly useful.

Our first meal was comida (main meal of the day) late Thursday afternoon at El Asador Vasco. I ordered the sopa de tortilla and shared the Botana Oaxaqueña, a platter filled with an assortment of Oaxacan specialties. The best part was  the view of the lively zócalo, or main square, from our table on the balcony. The meal was good, but I was most excited about trying Oaxaca’s market and street vendor foods.

Later that night, after exploring town and enjoying poolside drinks at the fabulous Quinta Real Hotel, we indulged in the popular Oaxacan street food at Las Tlayudas de Libres, on Libres street between Murguía and Miguel Bravo streets (hours are 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.). We ordered tlayudas, oversized hand-made tortillas grilled over hot coals served with black beans, salsa and tasajo (half-dried salted beef). We also snacked on an order of pickled pigs feet and sipped from hot cups of tejate and champurrado. Patrons have the option of eating inside the restaurant or on picnic tables on the street. We chose the latter as a way to experience the food being made in front of us. It’s also worth noting that there is another tlayudas stand next to Las Tlayudas de Libres, which appears to be connected but is not. This was one my favorite meals of the trip.

The next morning, while our friends Andrés and Leonor took a day trip to see the “petrified water falls” at Hierve el Agua, Larry and I continued our culinary explorations with breakfast at Mercado de la Democracia (located eight blocks east of the zócalo). We enjoyed empanadas with huitlacoche (corn mushroom), quesillo (shredded string cheese), and flor de calabaza (squash blossoms) from La Güerita. For drinks we wandered directly across the aisle to Jugos Petrita, for fresh orange juice and a licuado de fresa (strawberry smoothie). We wandered the market for a bit, and although we were still quite full, we couldn’t help but try a tamál de mole negro wrapped in banana leaves from Tamales Leti, and a sweeter version, a tamál de dulce (sweet pineapple), from Tamales Geno. It was an excellent extended breakfast that should have left us full until dinner, but…

Early that afternoon we made our way to the market near the zócalo for nieves (fruit ices) and aguas frescas (fruit drinks). We enjoyed four flavors of fruit ice from Chagüita—fresa (strawberry), mango, limón and guanábana. It tasted very similar to fruit ice cream and was probably my favorite sweet treat in Oaxaca. After the fact, we learned that there is very little price difference (just three pesos) between the small and large-sized cups, so I’d recommend sizing up. Afterwards, we ordered three varieties of aguas frescas at Casilda. Disappointingly, the beverages tasted more sugary than fruity. It might help to hold the sugar. Our favorite flavor was fresa. According to Rick Bayless, both stands use safe water, which helps visitors like ourselves feel comfortable indulging in this treat.

After Andrés and Leonor returned from their adventure, we all headed to Zandunga for an enjoyable cena. I liked the restaurant’s energy and vibe—a modern, open and well-lit space with colorful, wooden ceiling lanterns and tables draped in bold-patterned oilcloth. I sipped a bit of Leonor’s mescal, a Mexican liquor distilled from the maguey plant (a form of agave), enjoyed my own bottle of Montejo (a pilsner), and snacked on molotes de plátano (plantain croquettes), enchiladas with mole negro, consomé de pollo (chicken soup), and arroz con leche for dessert.

The next morning we enjoyed one final market breakfast before leaving Oaxaca. Based on Rick Bayless’s recommendation, we picked La Abuelita, well-known for its Oaxacan specialties, at the Mercado 20 de Noviembre (market near the zócalo). We enjoyed enchiladas with mole and Oaxaca’s famous hot chocolate with pan de yema (sweet egg bread). Leanor also purchased a bag of chapulines (spicy fried grasshoppers) from a market vendor, which she tossed in her quesadilla by the handful and told me I had to try. Apparently, a popular legend says that if you eat chapulines, you’ll return to Oaxaca some day. I sampled one in hopes of a return trip, simultaneously exploring the crunchiness of a dead insect in my mouth and the unexpected spiciness, while savoring the many new experiences I found in Oaxaca.

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