Ode to Oyamel

At the beginning of the week, our team was forced to say goodbye to our lovely summer intern who was returning to medical school in Massachusetts. We had tasked her with choosing the location of her farewell luncheon, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with her selection: one of José Andrés’ best restaurants, Oyamel Cocina Mexicana. Located in Chinatown, Oyamel is known for its fantastically inventive and playful dishes. As it was only 1:30 on a Monday afternoon, our group couldn’t quite justify imbibing, but if we had, the margaritas with Oyamel’s signature foam would have been just the ticket.

But let’s back up. I’ve eaten at Oyamel twice before, so I knew roughly what to expect from the menu. The only difference was that my recently discovered food intolerances meant that I was no longer eating any legumes (read: beans), or corn. As corn and beans are ubiquitous to Mexican cuisine, I took a bit more action than usual – I called ahead to speak with a manager. Just as I had hoped, the manager was extremely gracious, and went over different items on the menu that would be appropriate, or could be slightly modified to accommodate my needs. I felt pretty confident that I could eat well and safely at Oyamel.

What I did NOT expect was the extraordinary service the staff imparted as soon as my party walked in the door. As we sat down, the hostess asked who had the allergy; I raised my hand, and she gave me a menu. But this menu was just a bit different from the other ones she was passing around. This looked as if a small child had been given a red crayon and black sharpie and told to “go crazy, kid!” Every single dish on the very extensive menu was either circled, crossed out, or starred with a message indicating that a substitution or change could be made easily to the dish. No guessing game here. Someone at Oyamel had taken the time to sit down with the menu, and mark up every single dish, in order to make my dining experience easier.

Things were looking good, but I still felt a small twinge of jealousy when my colleagues started chowing down on the chips and salsa. Oh, for a salty, hot-off-the-fryer tortilla chip. It’s the little things in life, really. I digress.

We ordered guacamole—made table-side in a massive molcajete—and I was presented with a delightful plate of sliced radishes, cucumbers, and carrots as a substitute for the chips. Nicely done. The red fish that I ordered needed no modification, and was delicious with a crispy skin, surrounded by a luscious stew of tomatoes, capers, jalapeños, onions and olives. I rounded out the meal with a dessert I had tasted on a previous occasion—the sweet potato flan with green apple sorbet and tamarind sauce. It was heavenly.

It was an extraordinary meal, yes, but José Andrés is pretty darn good at that. What was really special was the added care that the staff took to attend to my needs. Many of my colleagues actually ordered things with peanuts, but I felt no apprehension about cross-contamination or carelessness. Oyamel means business—plating exciting and delicious food, and doing so in a safe, accommodating, and pleasant environment.

Until my next meal…

Oyamel Cocina Mexicana | 401 7th Street NW, Washington DC 20004)


El Uh-Oh

A few months ago, I was catching up with a few friends on the roofdeck of El Centro on 14th Street. The margaritas were flowing, and we were happily munching on chips and guacamole to quell our post-work hunger pains. After making our dinner selections, I motioned the bartender over to our corner. I offered up the standard rigmarole: “I have a peanut allergy; do you have any peanuts in house?” After a few noncommittal, but generally negative replies, I asked again, “do you use peanut oil at all?” This time, the bartender was more convincing with his replies of “nope – not at all!” I asked him to note the allergy on the ticket, all the same, but I was satisfied that I had gotten his attention, and that I had made my needs known.

I hadn’t gotten his attention.

My first bite of a gooey, crispy pork empanada sent my whole body into full alert. I don’t know how common it is to feel an immediate sense of dread, but for me…I knew. A minute later and I was acutely aware of the scratchy sensation in my throat. Resignation set in, and I walked home…

I’ll spare you all the gory details, but after recovering from a resoundingly uncomfortable, sleepless night, I decided to call the restaurant to complain about the situation. No dice. A manager couldn’t be reached, and I never received a call back. I called another time, and was given the same response. I then found their website, and described in detail what had happened on their comments page, hoping to receive an apology by email. Again, utter silence.

This, then, is the problem. I had done everything right in this situation, and I had spoken out about my needs as a customer. Unfortunately, some breakdown in the system allowed this to happen. Perhaps the kitchen staff wasn’t careful enough, or perhaps the bartender forgot to mention the allergy. Maybe it was a weird fluke. But the silence that I faced leads me to believe in a different story—a story that can only begin with poor management. The bartender acted cavalier and falsely knowledgeable, yes, but more importantly, the other restaurant staff showed an alarming display of flippancy and apathy when asked to take responsibility for the error.

So what do I do now? The obvious first step is not to frequent this restaurant any longer. I also avoid one of its sister restaurants, Masa 14. I wish this wasn’t the case; both these restaurants are quite popular, and I’ve had to turn down more than one invitation to join a group there.

This experience was undeniably the worst that I’ve had during my time in DC and I needed an outlet for the frustration I felt. Hence, Persnickety. If you’ve read my About Me page, you’ll understand how I came to start this blog. My El Centro debacle truly was the catalyst for taking action. When I make a fuss, I want to be heard, and I want to know that others are heard as well.

In that vein, I’d love to hear from you! What would you have done in my situation? How far do you go to make a fuss?

El Centro                                                                                                                            1819 14th Street NW  Washington, DC 20009