Restaurant of the Year: Alfonsina : New Worlder

Last year, our restaurant of the year, Mugaritz in Errenteria, Spain, has been pushing the boundaries of creativity in a fine dining kitchen for two decades. It’s a restaurant that forces us to question why things are the way they are, asking us to break free from the tired constraints of convention in fine dining. Our restaurant of the year for 2018, Alfonsina in Oaxaca, Mexico, might be the exact opposite of Mugaritz, but its impact is just as significant.

Located in the family home of Jorge León on the outskirts of Oaxaca in a neighborhood called San Juan Batista La Raya, Alfonsina opened just a few months ago with little notice when he returned to Oaxaca to live after working for years in Mexico City, though his family has been making food there for several years in some form. It has no menu, no website, no Facebook page, not even a sign on the door (and even if you put the address in Google Maps it’s still rather difficult to find). While it is not the only restaurant in Oaxaca making traditional food that can make your heart melt, it’s the only one that we have found that does so this spectacularly.

León started as dishwasher at Casa Oaxaca as a teenager, but quickly worked his way up through the kitchen. Eventually, he caught the attention of Enrique Olvera who hired him at Pujol in Mexico City. He quietly took charge of the most integral role in the kitchen, making the masa and the moles, earning him the nickname “Moles.” Many stagiaires asked for him to teach them what he knows, but were surprised and overwhelmed with how deeply serious he was about the craft. He’d expect them to meet him at 3am. If you messed up, he would be disappointed. If you messed up twice, he wouldn’t believe in you anymore. His expertise was in making traditional moles, though Olvera pushed him to think in another context, he claims. To create a mole unique to that moment and that restaurant. Mole madre, perhaps the restaurant’s most famous dish, based on the celebratory moles of Oaxaca that continue to be reheated the day after, grew out of this relationship. All of the money he saved up from working at Casa Oaxaca and Pujol over the last decade has gone into creating Alfonsina. While there are hopes of gradually making it more formal, to put the logo on the door and have a stable menu, for now word is spreading from one person to the next like wildfire.

Inside a small dining room with a couple of tables beside the comal at his family’s rustic compound, León and his family are making a stunning array of other regional dishes almost non-stop in an order that makes sense to them. There’s no formal kitchen, but an open-air work space with a few tables, baskets of ingredients, and charcoal grills. Pigs and chickens run around in the yard. They are up early, often as early as 3am, and neighbors wander in and sit at the two tables for breakfast, snacks, and meals until the afternoon. If come in the morning for the full experience you just sit and the food just comes. Some just stop in to pick up tortillas for the day. But what tortillas they are! Their masa is made from  corn which they mill themselves at the house, sourced from farmers from in Santo Domingo Nundo, La Mixteca, about three hours away, where the family moved from when Jorge was six. If you take a hunk of Alfonsina’s masa and roll it into a little ball, you’ll notice a consistency that is unlike any other masa you might ever have had the pleasure of knowing. It’s not overly moist or dry. If you squeeze it a little bit it expands back to its original form as if it is alive.

At the comal, León‘s mother, Elvia León Hernández, is pressing the masa it into tortillas and setting them on the comal. Sometimes she’ll fill them with cecina and cheese and other ingredients to make tlayudas. Other times the masa is used to make molotes, tamales, memelas, or tetelas. Sometimes they are grilling tasajo or smoking cecina. On one visit they made higaditos, a mixture of scrambled eggs, chicken broth, and other seasonings that were cooked in a pot set over wood charcoal set in a wheel barrel and pressed until most of the moisture was expelled to form a sort of dense cake. Over a two day period at Alfonsina, never repeating a dish and with execution as precise as Noma, we ate better than perhaps we ever have. León and his family are not trying to turn Oaxacan food into something it is not. Rather than fighting against tradition, they embrace it with open arms.

Note: If you would like to visit Alfonsina, it’s best to reach out to León directly before visiting, either through his Instagram page or by email (flama_oaxaco[AT]hotmail.com).