Last year’s 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 and asks 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 to little notice when Jorge returned home to Oaxaca after working for years in Mexico City (though his family has been making food there for several years). It has no menu, no website, no Facebook page, not even a sign on the door, and 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, 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 like wildfire.
At his family’s rustic compound, inside a small dining room with a couple of tables beside the comal, León and his family are making a stunning array of other regional dishes 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. The family is up early, often as early as 3 AM, and neighbors wander in, taking seats at the two tables for breakfast, snacks, and meals that carry them through until the afternoon. While some come in the morning for the full experience, waiting for dish after dish to appear on the table, others just stop in to pick up the day’s tortillas. But what tortillas they are! Alfonsina’s masa is made from in-house-milled corn sourced from farmers in Santo Domingo Nundo, La Mixteca. About three hours away, Jorge’s family lived here until he 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 have had the pleasure of knowing. It’s not overly moist or dry, and if you squeeze it a little bit, it expands back to its original form as if it were alive.
At the comal, León‘s mother, Elvia León Hernández, presses the masa into tortillas and sets them on the comal. Sometimes she’ll fill them with cecina, cheese, and other ingredients to make tlayudas. Other times, the masa is used to make molotes, tamales, memelas, or tetelas. Depending on the visit, they could be grilling tasajo or smoking cecina. On one of ours, they made higaditos — a mixture of scrambled eggs, chicken broth, and other seasonings, cooked in a pot, set over wood charcoal in a wheelbarrow. Pressed until most of the moisture is expelled, what results is a sort of dense cake. Over a two day period at Alfonsina, we never received a repeat dish. And with execution as precise as that of Noma, we might have eaten better than 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’re embracing 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).