By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
When one thinks of Mexican food, the last thing that comes to mind is barbequed ribs, especially in Oaxaca, the city with a reputation for culinary seduction above all the rest in Mexico. But for decades, Comedor Familiar El Bichón Restaurante has been serving good old-fashioned American style pork back ribs right off the grill, along with traditional Oaxacan foods such as tasajo and cecina (grilled beef and pork respectively), memelitas, mole and more. Despite its location in a non-touristy residential / commercial sector of Oaxaca just outside Oaxaca’s quaint downtown core, on a recent Sunday visit El Bichón was jampacked during Oaxacan comida hours (2 – 5 p.m., more or less) – not with tourists to this Mexican Mecca for mouth-watering cuisine, but rather locals out with the family for Sunday brunch Oaxaca style.
Functional, typical and homey best describes the décor at El Bichón. High terra cotta colored walls, pillars and floor are accented with deep blue trim. Purple patterned Oaxacan-made tablecloths are covered with clear plastic. Chairs are 70’s chrome and pine.
Oaxacans come to El Bichón to eat well and drink cheaply in a comfortable familiar setting, not to be wooed by the ambience of high-end fusion restaurants in the city. It’s not that these particular Mexican diners cannot afford the likes of Los Danzantes, Casa Oaxaca or Origen, since they have the resources to frequent whatever Oaxacan restaurant they choose. Sometimes families just want to enjoy their food without formality, pretext or fanfare.
After taking your drink order (the house mezcal is particularly smooth, glass filled to the brim), your server arrives with complimentary starters. On this afternoon they consisted of shrimp bisque and a plate of memelitas and tostadas topped with beans and Oaxacan crumbly queso (fresh cheese). For a formal appetizer consider the mixed botana plate, but be forewarned that portions in general are large, and this menu selection, botana surtida (mixed appetizer), is no different. For two, order for one. The price may seem steep at first, but once you see the size you’ll get the picture. The plate comprises quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese), meaty fried riblets, chicharrón (fried pork cracklings) and tasajo, garnished with sliced cucumber and tomato. Most main meat courses include rice and a selection of fresh and steamed vegetables. While the broccoli was overcooked, in Oaxaca it’s typical and acceptable. Moles are available, but as custom dictates do not include the sides, except of course for tortillas. In any event it’s better to stick to specialties, the meats.
Barbacoa de borrego is sheep cooked in an in-ground oven. Order it if you’ve never tried it. But the term ‘barbacoa’ is a misnomer by American and Canadian standards. In Oaxaca it signifies more of a flavoring (barbacoa de pollo is chicken stewed with tomato and seasoned with avocado leaf and other herbs and spices) or in the case of borrego or chivo (goat), a cooking style. Carnes asadas (grilled meats), on the other hand, are prepared more akin to northern BBQ methods.
While the serving of tasajo spills over the edges of the plate and the flavor is distinctly charcoal, it’s the barbeque back ribs that make El Bichón unique for Oaxaca. They’re known as costillas asadas (grilled ribs). An encounter with pork ribs on the grill is truly a treat – for tourists who are less enamored with traditional Oaxacan food and spicing, expats yearning for a bit of back-home, and of course Oaxacans whose palates have been primed. Think of your best local rib restaurant, and El Bichón will scratch the itch.
El Bichón is located at Plan de Ayala 305, just south of downtown Oaxaca in the Cinco Señores neighborhood. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday, 1 – 6 p.m. If your stomach is still operating on a northern timetable, make it a late lunch.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca