CINCINNATI - Josh Wamsley, the owner of Mazunte, hopes his food will give you a taste of his Oaxacan adventure. The concise menu packs a full story of friendship and discovery.
Mazunte Taqueria Mexicana
- Where: 5207 Madison Road Suite 100, Cincinnati
- Website: Mazuntetacos.com
- Facebook: Mazunte
- Food: Mexican-style street food.
- Prices: Main dishes $6.26 - $9.25
Mazunte specializes in Mexican-style street food, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients. The taqueria makes its own salsas and queso fresco (fresh cheese), and uses fresh herbs and vegetables in the food. (Photo above courtesy of Mazunte)
Memalitas (alternatively spelled memelitas) have a place on the menu because Wamsley followed his nose, and discovered the scrumptious bites in the Oaxacan market one day. The memelitas at Mazunte are made with thicker corn tortillas, which embrace delicious morsels of meat, topped with black beans, salsa roja (red), salsa verde (green) and queso fresco.
When Wamsley first tasted chicken enchiladas with coloradito (red) sauce at a friend’s party, he was hooked. The day he left Mexico, his friend handed him a folded note, detailing her grandmother’s recipe.
At Mazunte, these rolled tortillas are stuffed with chicken or pork, and dressed with salsa verde or salsa coloradito. They are served with Mexican cheese, fresh spinach, onion, crema and queso fresco.
Pozole, Mexico’s comfort food, is the perfect stew of pork, chicken and hominy. At Mazunte, it contains a parade of other ingredients: Mexican oregano, red radish, onion, avocado, cilantro and lime. You may have to fight Wamsley for this dish: It’s his personal favorite.
Build your own “sampler” experience with the mixed tacos. Choose from any combination of Sangria steak, shredded pork, or fish tacos. The tacos are replete with a long list of possible accoutrements: Mexican slaw, guacamole, goat cheese, queso fresco, and even fresh spinach and pomegranate seeds. Let’s not forget about the salsa choices: Mango habanero salsa, salsa roja, avocado salsa, picante (fresh salsa), and red onion salsa.
The menu skews southern and central Mexico, primarily Oaxaca; however, it includes other regional specialties, like blue corn quesadillas from Mexico City and fish tacos from northern Mexico.
Although you won’t see the word "authentic" on Mazunte’s menu, the food stays close to its roots. For one thing, the only kind of tortilla you'll find here is of the corn variety. Flour tortilla, which many prefer in this country because of its softer texture, is simply not offered.
A handful of items on the menu have been adjusted to better suit a restaurant kitchen. Take for example, Chile Relleno. It's roasted instead of cooked the traditional way: Frying by placing the chile in a pan of hot oil, while continually spooning the hot oil over it.
As a footnote, if you go to Mazunte, find out for yourself why the guacamole constantly peaks the popularity meter.
Meet the owner
It is said necessity is the mother of invention. In Wamsley’s case, the necessity was a good taco, and the invention? Mazunte.
In the summer of 2010, Wamsley had just returned from teaching English in Asia.
"I wanted a taco one day, but I couldn't find a true taco shop. It annoyed me," Wamsley recalled.
It was in that moment that Wamsley knew he would open his own taqueria.
"I decided I would move to Mexico and learn everything about the food," he added. A month later, Wamsley was there.
Born and raised in Madeira, Wamsley was not thinking about becoming a restaurant owner when he pursued a journalism degree in Florida. He wanted to be a writer.
"I had the easiest life in Florida. I lived on this awesome beach, and had a sweet apartment," Wamsley recounted. "I knew in my heart, if I didn't leave, I never would."
Many people in his shoes would probably have stayed put, but not Wamsley.
"I try to do things that make my life better, not easier," he said. After graduation, Wamsley hopped on a plane for Prague.
In Prague, Wamsley went through a steep learning curve, not uncommon for any foreigner. He got on the wrong bus, and it took him three hours to pick up a few things at the store.
"Everything was different. But that's why I love to travel. I like not knowing. I'm not afraid to be lost," Wamsley said.
From Prague, Wamsley traveled south to Hungary, Italy, Slovenia and Austria. While in Hungary, he reconnected with his roots. Wamsley, who’s Hungarian by blood, ate the food his grandmother used to make.
Wamsley went on to Korea, and taught English there for a year-and-a-half. While in Korea, he took side trips to Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Laos. When his teaching contract ended, Wamsley returned home to plot his next destination.
It was then that he had the fateful craving for a good taco.
When Wamsley arrived in Oaxaca, he took on his role as an English professor at Universidad de la Sierra Sur.
He also wasted no time in telling his students, landlord, and friends, about the
purpose of his stay: To learn about their food and prepare to open a taqueria in Cincinnati.
Wamsley’s honesty and genuineness won the hearts of the locals. He remembers his first cooking lesson: Bistec a la Mexicana (Mexican Beef Steak).
"My landlord Elia, and her daughter Cindy taught me. It's a dish of steak, onion, chile, and tomato, eaten with tortilla. It's very popular for breakfast," he recalled.
Wamsley's cooking lessons got more advanced, leading to the famed and complex Oaxacan mole negro. His circle of cooking teachers also grew. Students who Wamsley didn't even know, would invite him to their homes for cooking lessons.
"They said, 'Profe, my mom wants to teach you something this weekend.' I'd go over to learn how to make tostadas, and sometimes I'd work at the taqueria for eight hours just making tortillas," Wamsley said.
According to him, tortilla is normally made by women in Oaxaca. His tortilla-making venture was quite a site for the locals.
While in Oaxaca, Wamsley took side trips to nearby places, notably, Mazunte, his restaurant’s namesake.
"It's an amazing beach town. We spent so many weekends there," he recalled.
Wamsley authored Mazunte’s menu in a 400 square foot concrete apartment in Oaxaca. When he returned to Cincinnati, Wamsley--together with his family and friends--built a taqueria that is Mazunte.
“We’re very honest about what we do. There’s no professional chef here. In the beginning, there was me and Eduardo,” Wamsley said, referring to Eduardo Gervacio, the restaurant cook. (pictured below)
He realized the awkwardness of the situation when he was first training Gervacio, who’s originally from Mexico, how to cook the Mexican dishes.
“If we had a chef, he’d be it,” Wamsley added.
The people of Oaxaca love their food. That was Wamsley’s experience in the year that he lived with, and learned from the people.
“They're excited to cook, to eat. I'd walk in the market or on the streets, and they would pull me in a taqueria and show me how to make salsa de arbol,” Wamsley recounted.
Breakfast alone would involve a full spread of tamales, tortas, chilaquiles, huevos rancheros and enchiladas.
Wamsley remembers munching on these delights at the university.
“We’d sit in the open veranda, with the mountains in the background,” he said.
Culinary traditions run deep in Oaxaca. When Wamsley was learning from his cooking teachers, he often encountered rigid boundaries.
“They're very focused on how it’s supposed to be done, whereas I’m always asking questions, trying to change things,” he said. “They would say ‘no’ to my ideas of mixing things, but they wouldn’t say why.”
Wamsley realizes that his cooking teachers, Elia and Cindy, might be shocked at the liberties he’s taken with some of the dishes at Mazunte.
“I do roja and verde salsas with the chicken tamales. It’s usually either roja or verde in Oaxaca.” “I would learn in my landlord’s kitchen upstairs, and sometimes, I’d cook for her and her daughter,” he said. “They were shocked to have a guy cook for them.”
By the way...
Before too long, Wamsley will be sourcing all of Mazunte’s chocolate, mole, and a sundry list of other items from Oaxaca. He speaks fondly of how the people of Oaxaca have embraced him, and he's eager to bring more of their culture back to Cincinnati.
(All photos by G. Yek, except as indicated)
Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.