Whenever we visit our daughter in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, the subject of where to eat lunch often comes up. This is not a simple proposition. In most places, the decision might come down to the closest restaurant or a family favorite, usually involving driving there. In the case of Ballard, which has seen a restaurant renaissance lately, the choices are almost overwhelming. Since our daughter lives within blocks of the main commercial district, all we have to do is walk there, so distance is irrelevant.
On several occasions, the Mexican food choice has been La Carta de Oaxaca.
When La Carta opened in 2004, it could be said that Seattle’s Mexican restaurant scene shifted. The perception that south of the border food was confined to Tex-Mex was turned on its ear. First of all, as far as I know, they were the first locally to offer genuine Oaxacan cuisine to a mainstream dining crowd. They also offered entrées not often seen on menus: molé, entomatadas, birria, picaditas, to name a few. The interior is small and cramped, with black & white photos of Oaxacan people and scenes on the walls. At dinnertime, you may have to wait a long time to get seated, so it’s best to get there early or have lunch there instead. It is also noisy.
The salsa bar is beyond compare. With six different kinds, you can spark up your dishes with pico de gallo, salsa verde, or a range of reds, most without a hint of tomato.
Molé negro, perhaps Oaxaca’s signature sauce, is a complex combination of chiles, nuts, dried fruits, chocolate, garlic, onion, herbs and spices. A work associate of mine in a previous job introduced me to molé at a West LA restaurant whose name I don’t remember. True molés take a great deal of time to make, so when a genuine one is offered, I jump at the opportunity. I’ve had Carta’s molé negro in the past. As I expected, it was complex and thick, with definite chocolate undertones. It’s also somewhat sweet, presumably from dried fruits and not sugar, but it is one of the best I’ve had, right up there with Guelaguetza and Molés La Tia, both in LA.
Carta’s homemade corn tortillas are delicious and thin. They are used in many of their dishes. Freshly fried, they also make for terrific chips (not gratis).
Lime-marinated shrimp is featured in a pair of tostadas de camarones, served with shredded cabbage, tomatoes, jalapeños, onion, cilantro and avocado slices on top of Carta’s corn tortillas. The generous amount of lime juice was heavy-handed, making the shrimp little factories of puckeriness.
Tender, folded-over corn tortillas, topped with tomatillo sauce, shredded lettuce, sliced onion, crema Mexicana and Oaxacan cheese accompanied thin, nicely grilled and tender beef slices, their entomadas. You can also opt for a red sauce in place of the tomatillo.
Halibut tacos (pictured above) were filled with sauteed halibut, shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, and chipotle cream sauce. This was my personal favorite today.
Only this year, Carta opened a sister restaurant in the Queen Anne neighborhood—Mezcaleria Oaxaca.
La Carta de Oaxaca
5431 Ballard Avenue NW
Seattle, WA 98107