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Monday, June 16, 2008

Thing 114: Oyamel

I looked up from our many small, empty plates and remembered that, oh, yes, I was at the crowded bar at Oyamel. I had spent the last 20 minutes so thoroughly focused downward at the great array of flavors in front of me, it was quite surprising to realize that I was surrounded by life and noise, glasses clanging and loud laughter.

I have always loved Oyamel, since its days in Crystal City through my numerous visits to its new incarnation in Penn Quarter. From that very first visit years ago, the staff was helpful in recommending their favorites, the guacamole so good I'd like to put it in my pocket, the drinks are delicious if a touch expensive, and the warm surroundings let you feel comfortable and relaxed. I once met a friend at Oyamel for 'a drink'; we arrived at 6:00 and were so taken care of we ended up staying for the next six hours, graciously taken care of by our bartender and the small sustaining plates coming out of the kitchen. I have only ever ordered one thing from Oyamel that I didn't like, and I'm pretty sure that is because it turns out I don't like cactus -- hardly the kitchen's fault. At Oyamel, even the cricket tacos are delicious.

I should not be surprised -- this kitchen belongs to the vast tapas empire of Jose Andres, chef of Jaleo, Atlantico, Zaytinya and MiniBar, student of Ferran Adria of El Bulli and the latest darling of Bravo TV. Andres makes small plates, and no matter their twist -- Spanish, Mexican, South American, Greek or Turkish -- they are always tasty and flawlessly executed, served by a caring and knowledgeable staff. Oyamel focuses on Mexico and amidst the margaritas with sea 'foam' and guacamole made table-side in a stone mortar is arguably the best Mexican cooking in DC.

I grew up in California, and I love a fat a burrito or a roadside taco better than most. I know that Oyamel isn't the Mexican food to be found in dinghy holes in the wall in the Mission district. But this classed-up, tapas-style Mexican might be even better. The squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and served with tomato, olive and caper sauce practically dared us to lick the plate, and delicate scallop ceviche puckers with grapefruit and cilantro oil. Spicy shrimp are grilled with salsa negra that left our mouths pleasantly on fire. And if you're looking for more of that street-food vibe, they have a full taco bar where you can indulge in cricket tacos, wild mushroom with soft guacamole tacos, duck confit, BBQ'ed pork, beef tongue and many others. All of them are delicious.

Desserts here are first class, although this last time around I couldn't order it after I overdid it on the 'taco course.' I particularly like their tres leches cake, which comes with thinly sliced fresh pineapple and homemade pineapple preserves.

Located around the corner from Woolly Mammoth, across the street from the Bead Museum, in the heart of the Fringe Festival, and pretty much at the center of everything, Oyamel is one of the surest dining options in the always-hopping Penn Quarter. I simply cannot recommend it enough, and with such a long menu of small plates, there is always something new to try, something unexpected and wonderful.