At Mexico’s southern tip lie three small coastal fishing villages: San Agustinillo, La Ventanilla and Mazunte, whose combined population tops out at just more than a thousand. Thatched roof huts of dried palm overlook golden sandy beaches, frolicking sea turtles and stunning ocean views, luring eco-tourists who seek the last of the world’s pristine, undeveloped lands.
The setting had inspired Mazunte Taqueria owner Josh Wamsley to create a dining experience matching those spent as a hungry English professor in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, a place he calls the “unofficial mecca of Mexican cuisine.” During his tenure, he culled together recipes from “old grandmothers,” who no doubt are among those carrying on the region’s reputation as the “land of the seven moles,” richly complex, chocolaty, spicy sauces that take a day (or more) to prepare.
Wamsley steams tamales — masa mixed with meat and mole wrapped in either corn husks or toasted banana leaves. He chops avocado and presses corn maize dough onto a flat clay “comal” to form tortillas and jagged, cupped-edged memelitas. He fire-roasts peppers and tomatoes to produce smoky salsa. He stands watch over a soupy, hominy-rich pot of pozole. Through it all, he has unearthed the true Mexico, not the one spoon-fed to most Americans, but the one demanding preparation borne of tradition, heart, sweat and soul.
Mazunte’s abbreviated but compelling menu is a homage to los antojitos, “little cravings” of street food filling Mexican streets, quieting growling stomachs of a hard-working population. Only a month old, the taqueria is quickly earning good word-of-mouth as Wamsley transmits his passion for authentic Mexican cuisine via a series of eloquent, heartfelt Facebook posts.
Mazunte’s opening was a long time coming: We’d first heard of the place several months ago, frequently driving by the restaurant near the corner of Madison and Red Bank roads with the hope of finally trying it.
We entered Mazunte with a healthy dose of cynicism — after all, how unique could this place be when Cincinnati is already home to a diverse makeup of both Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican cuisine? How many more ways can one cook up a taco or tamale or an enchilada? Oh, to be naïve again.
Mazunte is located in the east corner of a tiny strip mall, its darkened windows making it appear deserted from a distance. Wamsley’s “reusable, sustainable” interior theme is clear: Scouring area farms, he’s breathed new life out of refuse stacked by the truckload, taking the phrase “reclaimed wood” to a literal extreme. The restaurant is cozy and simple: an L-shaped bar, a row of makeshift wooden stools, cinder block partitions and DIY tables make efficient use of the small, street art-spiked space.
At the register, we ordered a “mixed taco” plate ($9) including three of four available proteins: braised chicken with red chili and avocado salsa, spinach crema and queso fresco; shredded pork with avocado and roja salsa; and beer-battered fish with Mexican slaw, mango-habanero salsa and guacamole. Each taco was served on a single, hearty corn tortilla.
We also selected the chicken enchilada plate ($9), several melted Oaxaca cheese-filled tortillas topped with shredded, slow-cooked chicken, spinach and queso fresco, served with white Mexican rice dusted with cilantro. A side of fresh guacamole ($4.75) was too good to resist.
Presented with an empty basket and cup, we were directed to the opposite corner where a woman took our receptacles and filled them with piping-hot fried tortillas, hearty guacamole and two varieties of salsa, conservatively doled out from larger reservoirs of delicious eye candy.
We sat triumphant at a nearby table, retrieving drinks from a tiny fountain machine already depleted of two Coke varieties. Our “chips” and salsa were unlike anything we’d seen: stacks of whole fried tortillas with slits in the center to keep them flat. The smoky fire-roasted and verde salsas were both piquant and vibrant. While the guacamole portion was small, it boasted a pleasing ratio of cumin, onion and cilantro.
My tacos, while diminutive, packed bold, hearty flavors usually found at more expensive, trendier taquerias. My girlfriend’s chicken enchiladas offered an attractive stacked presentation showcasing the spicy braised chicken. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Mexican rice — usually an afterthought; this wasn’t at all like the forgettable red stuff served at other Mexican restaurants. Essences of chicken and cilantro electrified our senses.
Mazunte honors its ambitious theme of tradition, authenticity and care.
Go: 5207 Madison Road, Madisonville
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday