Epicurean

Eatery offers traditional Mexican

CorrespondentMarch 19, 2008 

Rodolfo San Juan and Azalea Villalobos, the husband-and-wife team who opened El Sabor de Oaxaca (226 E. Main St.; 359-1477) two weeks ago in Clayton, don't call the food they serve "authentic." They argue, with some justification, that the term has been so abused by countless Tex-Mex eateries as to be virtually meaningless. Instead, the couple use the term "traditional" when referring to the food at the area's first restaurant specializing in Oaxacan cuisine. And they ought to know what they're talking about. San Juan and Villalobos both hail from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where they owned a restaurant, and where San Juan's family has been in the business for generations.

El Sabor de Oaxaca features two scratch-made versions of mole, the region's most famous contribution to Mexican cuisine: mole negro, the complex, coffee-dark sauce whose many ingredients include several types of chile, ground nuts and seeds, spices and chocolate; and mole coloradito, a brick-red sauce similar to mole poblano but sweeter. I've tasted the mole negro (it's available on a plate, where it blankets a chicken leg-thigh quarter, served with rice and tortillas for $9.99, or as a sauce for enchiladas), and -- OK, I won't use the "a" word. Let's just say that, in terms of taste, it's the real deal.

The menu also offers tacos, sopes, huaraches and other dishes whose names will be familiar to many, as well as a few dishes you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in these parts. Tlayudas, for one, a popular Oaxacan street vendor food featuring a large toasted corn tortilla spread with refried beans and topped with cabbage, avocado, Oaxacan cheese and your choice of meat (beef tenderloin or pork). Huevos rancheros, atole (a warm masa-thickened porridge popular since pre-Columbian times) and other breakfast specialties are offered from 7 to 11 a.m.

The tiny, tropically colorful eatery is open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., although the hours may change depending on demand. Call first before driving to Clayton. But if you're a fan of authentic -- er, traditional Mexican food, this one's worth the drive.

In Cary, owners Bob Kelly and Wesley Newsome don't claim that the food at Guacamole Grill (1305 NW Maynard Road, in Maynard Crossing Shopping Center; 467-4400; www.guacamolegrill.com) "authentic Mexican." They'll proudly tell you that it's Tex-Mex. But they'll quickly add that, unlike all those cookie cutter Tex-Mex chains, food is prepared from scratch using fresh, wholesome ingredients. The menu is different, too. Think Chipotle or Qdoba, not El Dorado or La Rancherita.

Burritos, made with white or wheat tortillas and your choice of steak or marinated grilled chicken, are offered in several variations, from Texas Grill (bacon, freshly made guacamole, pico de gallo, jack and cheddar cheeses) to Caesar-ito (lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese and spicy Texas Caesar dressing). Chicken club and steak tacos are made with flour tortillas as well, and are served in pairs with chips for $5.99. Other options include quesadillas, nachos, enchiladas, and salads. Guacamole Grill is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or http://blogs.newsobserver.com/epicurean

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