New York City was late to the table where Oaxacan restaurants are concerned. Sure, we’ve had a handful of places appealing to a working-class crowd like Cienega Las Tlayudas de Oaxaca in Corona and La Morada in Mott Haven, but only the latter focuses on its moles. The majority of moles here are found in more expensive restaurants such as Oxomoco, where the dishes are generally treated as novelties among a range of regional Mexican fare and Mexican-themed inventions. They’re not bad, but don’t demonstrate the level of fidelity that has recently arrived in Astoria at Ruta Oaxaca.
This newcomer flaunts the moles that have made the cuisine world famous. By legend, these ancient recipes are seven in number, but in practice there are way more. I hesitate to call them sauces, because they are the very focus of the meal, rather than the poached chicken, pork ribs, or grilled beefsteak that are thrown in, almost as an afterthought. Los Angeles has the richest collection of Oaxacan restaurants in the nation offering multiple moles, and there’s an expat community in New Brunswick, New Jersey, too, but its cafes tend to ignore moles because of their time-consuming preparation, and these restaurants are more suited to grabbing a tlayuda or other quick bite.
Ruta Oaxaca has a jazzy vibe, with an awning and a streetside dining shack in the same bright pink that seems to suggest lazy days at the beach. Inside the premises are a couple of colorful murals in a deep space, with a bar at the right newly stocked with tequila and mezcal bottles (the restaurant belatedly received its liquor license after having applied in September), whereon several wooden saucers of flavored salts sit for dipping the rims of margarita glasses. Yet far from being a margarita mill — as Mexican restaurants that seem only there for the drinks are called — Ruta Oaxaca, named after a Mexican TV travel show, is dead serious about its Oaxacan fare, and four moles are featured.
The easiest entry to these Oaxacan fundamentals is mole Oaxaca (sometimes called mole negro), which is similar to the deep brown mole poblano the city has become familiar with. But in this case, the spices have been toasted for a deeper, darker flavor and color. It appears among the apps as a topping for bunuelos ($11.95). These squarish ragged turnovers looking like a medieval priest’s bonnet are filled with chicken, and come smothered in the mole, with purees of pear and sweet plantain squirted around the plate, a magnificent collection of flavors. The same mole appears more conventionally on chicken enchiladas, and also with beef short ribs.
Ruta Oaxaca was founded by Jose Castillo Reyes — who started out in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher 20 years ago — along with Carlos and Felipe Arellano and Iris Castillo, Reyes’s wife, who handles social media for the restaurant.
Among the other apps, one favorite is ceviche ($16.95), not currently on the paper menu, but visible on the one brought up by the QR code scan. Though limited to shrimp and squid (both pre-poached), this is one of the most opulent ceviches in town, dotted with yellow and red cherry tomatoes and surmounted by sliced avocado. A chile powder sprinkled across the top gives the tongue an electric tingle.
Three other moles grace the most recent menu, but ask the server which are available, since all are not identified by color, and sometimes others appear as specials. On the online menu, find a strip steak in mole amarillo ($29.95). The waiter suggested ordering the meat well done, but our foursome that evening took a chance and went for medium rare. This was a premium cut of steak and responded well to this treatment, and it was wonderfully tender, broadcasting its minerality. But even better was the mole, yellowish red from its combination of chiles and the masa that thickens it. Notes of clove and cumin also stuck out. The dish was so good you could discard the steak and still have a great meal.
Mole verde, which tastes of tomatillos and avocado, thickly coats a plate under a gravel of roasted corn and pumpkinseeds upon which a roasted quarter chicken perches ($22.95). This is a complicated plate, and figuring out how to attack it takes some strategizing. If you like your sauce on top, the same green mole also comes with a haddock fillet ($27.95) in a little pitcher, to be poured over the top of the fish. The pitcher also facilitates dumping some of the bright and creamy sauce on an accompanying bowl of rice.
Finally, the most lighthearted mole on Ruta’s bill of fare is coloradito, which appears here and there. On the digital menu, it blankets the short ribs, a massive hunk of beef falling off the bone, quite literally. This mole is only a shade lighter that the mole Oaxaca, but tastes like sweet sunshine with its component of tomatoes and dried fruits.
The menu is rounded out with enchiladas — many smothered in moles — and tacos that come three to a plate with salsas that highlight individual chiles, fruits, and flavored mayo. Among them is cochinita pibil ($14.95), a recipe that involves pork marinated in sour orange and steamed in a banana leaf. The tacos come heaped with pickled purple onions, which make a colorful package. This Yucatecan dish didn’t originate in Oaxaca, but it is good.
Headed up with guacamole and nachos, the appetizer menu is a bit low on Oaxacan antojitos like tetelas, tlayudas, and memelas. No matter; these corn-based snacks are available elsewhere in town. The real utility of Ruta Oaxaca lies in its focus on moles, plating them in context along with other aspects of the state’s magnificent cuisine. It’s nothing less than a fresh take on Oaxacan food, and one that the city has been pining for.