Asked to define Mexican food, most of us would come up with a similar, standard definition that would probably include tacos, refried beans and salsa. This would be true if you were like me and didn't have the sharpest appreciation for the diversity of Mexico's cuisine. Like the cuisine of most other countries, such as China, Italy and the United States, Mexican cuisine encompasses a variety of regions whose foods have their own distinct identities and use different ingredients, flavorings and techniques. In fact, most of the dishes we think of as typical Mexican food have their origins either in Mexico's northernmost provinces or here in the United States.
One restaurant in town is offering something different. Las Flamahs is a small family place with ties to the province of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico just west of the Yucatan Peninsula. Oaxacan cuisine mixes indigenous and Spanish traditions and also combines an array of local ingredients. Inside Las Flamahs, a simply appointed square space in a small strip mall, find a place to sit and take your pick of Oaxacan specialties from the short but interesting menu.
When in a restaurant with ties to Oaxaca, do what the Oaxaqueos do: eat mole (that's "MO-lay"). This is one of Mexico's famous sauces, usually containing a whole cabinet of ingredients including raisins, nuts, cinnamon, plantains, dried chilies, cloves, dried fruit and, of course, chocolate. The word is a Spanish adaptation of the Aztec word molli, which means "stew," "sauce" or "concoction." It's among the most ancient sauces in all of Mexico, made entirely from ingredients that pre-date the Spanish conquest. Among the many regions where mole is popular, few are more famous than Oaxaca, which is known as the "land of the seven moles."
Las Flamahs offers only one of these, but it's an Oaxacan classic, emphasizing the chocolate-cinnamon-spice elements within the overall flavor complex. And the overall flavor is complex, especially with chilies adding a warm, friendly backbone to the glossy, red-brown sauce. Each bite is a new experience, with the sensations getting deeper and more nuanced as you eat. The chicken beneath was tender and simple, serving as an excellent delivery system for the luxurious sauce.
Another Oaxacan specialty, estofado, found its way onto the buffet offered during lunch and dinner at Las Flamahs. (I admit that I am generally skeptical about buffets of this sort, but they do a generally good job of keeping the food fresh, hot and pleasant to eat.) Combining boneless chunks of very juicy chicken with pieces of pineapple, the estofado is almost tropical, with sweet and tangy tones. Dropped onto a small corn tortilla, rolled up, and eaten like a tiny burrito, this is exciting, happy food. Roasted pork ribs in adobo sauce were another good item from the buffet, while an otherwise interesting offering of steak slices with chopped cactus paddles lost out to an overly astringent sauce.
Finding our way back to the menu, we found another winning item in the tamales. Three smallish examples arrived nice and warm, with a perfectly balanced masa base and a rich pork filling. Eating tamales out can involve a leap of faith, which Las Flamahs rewards, even offering a very nice, zippy salsa verde, made from tomatillos, to put on top.
Las Flamahs is trying to offer some variety to non-meat eaters, but with mixed results. An item advertised as enchiladas de jaiva, or crab, consisted solely of mock-crab wrapped in a steamed corn tortilla. With no cheese, sauce or other additives to give texture or liven the flavors, this dish should be avoided.
A much more satisfying vegetarian choice would be the fine chilies rellenos: moderately sized green poblano chilies stuffed with a hearty mixture of cheeses, dipped in batter, and quickly fried. The browned and crispy crust covers the tender and mild green chili, now softened, which gives way to the bubbly and gooey cheese on the inside. Sweet melted cheese mixes perfectly with a bit of spice from the chili, and the crunch from the crust gives it a little something extra.
Another home-style touch is their inspired horchata. This traditional beverage is made by soaking rice in water, to draw out some of the starch, then blending it with sugar and spices including cinnamon, and is served over ice. It looks like milk, is the perfect complement to spicy food, and, when it's as good as it is at Las Flamahs, it can be truly delicious.
Manning the tables and the front of the house is the officious and efficient Arturo, who may be one of the most energetic restaurant workers in all of town. He attended to our needs constantly and added to the family feel of our meal.
Having some authentic Oaxacan food available here in Colorado Springs is a real treat. It also adds greatly to the diversity of our available Mexican options. Stick with the real Oaxacan specialties and you're sure to experience a new world of flavors at a good price.
-- David Torres-Rouff
405 N. Union
Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.