I am loath to declare any restaurant “best this” or “best that.” But if anyone can find me a better Mexican restaurant in all of the metro area than Jonesboro’s Taqueria la Oaxaquena, I’ll eat this fine fellow’s sombrero.
I first discovered this restaurant several years ago when I was hot on the trail of the elusive tlayuda — an enormous corn masa crisp slathered with bean puree and covered in a riot of cheese, meat and crispy vegetables. It is a specialty from Oaxaca (the southern Mexican state famous for its mole sauces, among other culinary treats). I discovered that just about any restaurant with the word “oaxaquena” in the name would like likely serve tlayudas.
At the time of my discovery, Taqueria la Oaxaquena operated from a smaller storefront around the corner from its current location. It did an extremely brisk business, and many among the mostly Mexican customers went for the tlayudas (sometimes called “Mexican pizza” and, indeed, served to go in pizza boxes). But many more were eating tortas (sandwiches), sopes (thick and crisp-bottomed corn masa boats with fillings), caldos (whole-meal soups made with beef or seafood) and tamales (served both in corn husks and, Oaxacan-style, in banana leaves). The menu was vast, and it seemed to have grown bigger every time revisited.
The current location, which the restaurant moved into earlier this year, has less character but more space. With its laminated booths and tile floors, it looks like the fast-food joint it once was (Captain D’s, I think, but correct me if I’m wrong). The great, great salsa bar (which also includes nopales (cactus paddle) salad, pickled carrots with clove and fresh radishes) warms things up.
The menu remains its big ol’ bodacious self. We have to get a tlayuda with marbles of chorizo and quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese, like mozzarella) shredded over the top. Ripe avocado, tomato, radish, frizzles of iceberg lettuce and roasted jalapeños complete the picture. Factor in the corn crust — which is alternately crisp, leathery, chewy and gooey — and you’re in texture heaven.
Also very good: the chicken mole tamale, wrapped in a banana leaf. I didn’t include a picture because it would look ugly and scary with its Army-green background and pockets of blackness. But this sloppy marvel has tender steamed masa stuffed in the folds of the leaf, so some parts are stiff like cornbread crust and others are tender like spoonbread.
We also order this tamale-free platter of chicken mole, with a sauce as dark and glossy as hot tar. This sauce has lots of high raisiny and spice notes, but few of the bitter, chocolaty, herbal nuances of mind-blowing mole. Still, no complaints. Take one of the fragrant handmade tortillas (not pictured) and wrap up a saucy hunk of meat, and you’ll enjoy every bite of this dish.
Unable to resist the too-much-food imperative, the three of us also get this excellent shrimp and octopus tostada. The shrimp have a crisp snap, the octopus is tender and velvety, and it all tastes of bright, impeccable freshness.
Again, I ask: Is there a better Mexican restaurant in the city?