An acquaintance of mine insisted that I had to go to Carbón de Palo on my most recent trip to Oaxaca. She said it was her "most favorite" restaurant in Oaxaca. Normally, that would be a red flag for me but this is someone who is not a stranger to traveling in Mexico and visits Oaxaca on a regular basis.
So I collected some of my traveling companions and went to check it out. I wouldn't say it was my favorite meal in Oaxaca (but it was certainly FAR from the worst), or that it is the best restaurant in Oaxaca. But I can, in all honesty, say it was the most interesting meal I had. Not all the flavor combinations worked and some dishes were better than others; it was definitely a meal that made us think about what we were eating and it definitely got some discussion going. If you're looking for traditional dishes and flavor profiles, Carbón de Palo probably isn't going to be your cup of tea, but if you've an adventuresome diner and looking for something a little different, this could be it.
The chef is a fairly young (early 30s?) Colombian married to a Oaqueña. His skill level in the kitchen is very good, and that kitchen is very small. Carbón de Palo is easy to find as it is on Cinco de Mayo across the street from the Quinta Real. There are two dining rooms, one at street level and one on the second floor, which is also where the kitchen is located. The dining rooms and decor are both tasteful and comfortable.
We started with the Empanadas Colombianas which were delightful and virtually grease free. The dough had been stuffed with generous amounts of shredded beef and potato, perfectly fried and served with an herby chimichurri which complimented both the filling and the corn based dough.
We also tried the Garnachas de Pato; small, thick tostadas topped with finely shredded duck, diced vegetables and pickled onions. These disappeared nearly as quickly as the empanadas. We were hungry, but both appetizers were very good and took the edge off.
Friends at another table tried the ceviche and raved about how fresh and light it was. I didn't get to sample this one, but it did look good and was more in the style of a Peruvian ceviche (i.e. made with a leche de tigre) than a Mexican one.
Our table ordered 2 salads, one of which was more successful than the other. If I see maricuya (passionfruit) on the menu chances are good I'm going to order it. I did and then kind of wished I hadn't. What was billed as a fruit salad with an herbed and maricuya scented local organic cheese, was something of a miss. The fruit was good, but the herbe cheese - which was probably a local goat cheese - had some unidentified herbs that didn't exactly play very well with the passion fruit, which was overwhelmed. It wasn't a bad dish, just not a particularly well balanced one. The same cannot be said for the other salad which was very good. The beet and goat cheese salad has become ubiquitous and you can even find it Oaxaca. The beets were sweet, the goat cheese mild, the greens fresh and the vinagrette light. To add some crunch to the salad, it was topped with chicatanas, dried ants. These are not the delicate escamoles, these are black ants, BIG black ants about the size of the tip of your little finger. They don't taste like much and they do add crunch :-). Carbón de Palo is one of the few places in Oaxaca City in which I've seen chicatanas offered. They are not particularly local to the valle central, but if you want to try them, you can on this salad.
The entrees we tried were 2 of the pastas and a steak, with the steak being the clear winner. Cooked as requested, it was tender with good beefy flavor. It was accompanied by grilled knob onions and roasted potatoes that were both also very good.
The pastas were not quite a successful. One we ordered mostly out of curiousity because we weren't sure how pasta with coconut and pancetta would actually taste. It tasted pretty good, tho' it became a little one-note flavorwise towards the end. The deconstructed ravioli filled with short rib did not suffer from the one-note flavor syndrome. It's problem was just the opposite, there were too many flavors competing for attention which resulted in a very muddled and unfocused dish. I did ask the chef what was in it, and there was a laundry list of ingredients - including vanilla? - some of which probably should not have been in the same pot. The flavor, while interesting, ultimately, didn't satisfy.
Luckily I dine with people that like dessert. We split two of them, neither of which was particularly successful - I'm kind of thinking pastry isn't chef's forte - but one of them inspired a tremendous amount of amusement. The chocolate trio was unremarkable and one again, there were some weird flavor combinations. The local honey on the buñuelo, however, was very good.
The dessert that sent us into fits of laughter - once we translated it - was Creme Brulee de Remolacha con Malvavisco. In English it is Beet Creme Brulee with Marshmallow. The custard wasn't quite firm enough, the crystallized sugar topping almost none existent and the flavor of beets pronounced. The housemade, charry marshmallow was outstanding and, believe it or not, it paired up pretty well with the beet custard, which was actually pretty good, tho' it would have been better had it been a little bit sweeter. We did manage to finish the creme brulee de remolacha; it was one of those dishes that once you started on it, you kind of kept going because the flavors were different and intriguing. I'm glad we did order it although I'm not sure I'd order it again.
The service was good and the pacing of the meal relaxed.Even though not all the flavor combos were successful, the food was well prepared and very, very interesting. Carbón de Palo is not as expensive as Pitiona, Origen, Casa Oaxaca or Los Danzantes, but it's not that far behind. I think we each paid around $400 pesos (maybe a little less) which included food, beverage and tip.