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A Trip to Oaxaca, Mexico — No Passport Required

A Trip to Oaxaca, Mexico — No Passport Required


Boulder’s newest restaurant takes customers on a culinary and cultural adventure.

At the corner of Walnut and 9th Streets in Boulder sits Masas & Agaves. I noticed the covered patio area situated behind agave plants and, behind that, an expansive bar. Overhead, Spanish music pulses from the speakers. Upbeat and toe tapping but unlike the typical Mariachi music that I associate with Mexican restaurants, I realize I am in for an experience different from what I’ve come to know as Mexican cuisine.

Masas & Agaves exterior. Photo by Chris Curtis

That’s because Masas Boulder specifically serves Oaxacan cuisine. Found in the southern part of Mexico, the state of Oaxaca exists as a cultural and culinary haven. Being the last area to fall to Spanish rule undoubtedly contributes to the strong culture and traditions.

Once inside, I meet Manuel Gandara, the general manager and my guide for the evening. Hailing from Durango, Mexico, Manuel came to Colorado to study business. He worked at a local restaurant, first as a server, then moving his way up through the ranks. When offered the chance to open up a new concept in Boulder, he knew it couldn’t be just another Mexican restaurant. It had to be new and different, and he feels the surrounding communities stand ready to be immersed in a new cultural experience guided by traditions of Oaxaca.

“We work towards little waste,” Manuel tells me. Making the tortillas daily, from scratch, with corn sourced from local farms, offers the chance to use the parts that might typically be thrown away. Deeply rooted in the farm-to-table mindset, Manuel explains how he works to source seasonal ingredients as locally as possible, wasting as little as possible. When I find out he spent some of his formative years on a farm, it all makes sense.

I know I need to slow down to savor this journey. Having traveled to Mexico in my youth, I recall the longer meals at off-the-beaten-path places.

Masas & Agaves appetizer. Photo by Chris Curtis

First up: the guacamole. Made by hand, served in a dark gray stone molcajete, the mound of vibrant green avocado sits with Oaxacan cheese covering one side and pickled onions on the other. I devour the whole thing and discover that I may never eat guacamole again without the tang of pickled onions.

Another appetizer arrives reflecting the Spanish influence on the cuisine: Croquetas a la Pibil. This two-bite wonder comes served on a bed of black beans, so it doesn’t go rolling all over the round, wooden dish it comes on. Manuel also advises me to pick it up with my fingers to not lose the integrity of the bite. I don’t have to be told twice to eat with my hands. Crunchy, velvety, and with an avocado sauce on it, I quietly reflect that I could eat about a dozen of them.

Fortunately, I’m distracted from the fantasies of my new love for croquetas by an Aquachile. Oaxacan cuisine includes seafood from its 331 miles of coastline. Tossing tuna quickly in chili water and serving it immediately distinguishes this dish from ceviche, which requires  marinating in citrus for 20-30 minutes. Manuel explains that the traditional way to eat this dish is with a fork, not chips.

Fresh, bright, and textural, it does not disappoint. And I don’t miss the chips at all.

Masas & Agaves Chicken and Mole. Photo by Chris Curtis

Mole master Lola cooks up her family’s fifth-generation recipe of this Oaxacan staple. It serves as the base to a rotisserie chicken dish, cooked for four to five hours. “Slow and low,” I comment to Manuel, who nods knowingly. A reddish orange hue contrasts with the vibrant greens on top of and below the breast and leg. Underneath that, the deep reddish brown mole sauce awaits. Don’t leave those greens behind. They add a freshness as well as some texture and help with every last drop of mole.

Churros wrap up this flavor escapade. They are crunchy on the outside, doughy on the inside, and enhanced by dulce de leche, Mexican chocolate, and a creamy vanilla ice cream. Rich, I find I can only eat one. A server comes to my rescue with a box and gives me a reheating tip.

Masas & Agaves interior. Photo by Chris Curtis

That underscores another aspect of Masas and Agaves that I appreciated. The incredibly knowledgeable staff shares the history and culture with everyone they interact with, including how to treat your leftovers. From the bartenders to the servers, each displays a passion for bringing patrons along on this cultural and culinary adventure. I left with my mind as full as my stomach.

Be prepared to be transported to Oaxaca and leave any current notions of a Mexican restaurant behind. You can feel the fine dining vibe, but the food remains approachable and satisfying. You won’t find sour cream, burritos, or enchiladas here. You will find food carefully crafted with quality ingredients and a fusion of traditional and modern influences. You won’t find sombreros or the staff belting out “feliz cumpleaños.” You will find tacos. And you will find yourself falling for Oaxacan cuisine and culture.

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