Review: Zapoteca

Sending Mexican upscale — with a brick oven
By BRIAN DUFF  |  November 23, 2011

CREATIVE COCKTAILS Zapoteca struts its tequileria stuff.

Thanksgiving invites us to reflect on the Anglo-American model of indigenous relations: play nice for a bit, even share a feast, then murder everyone. In Mexico they did things the opposite way. Down there things started with massacres. But pretty soon it was "Hey, you're cute. Let's make some babies." Cortez himself got things started — presiding over horrifying slaughters even as he was falling for the native Malintzin. Their son Martin was among the first Mestizos — the Mexican ethnic majority whose heritage is a blend of Natives and Europeans. In this way the history of North American race relations is like a Hollywood romantic comedy: the guy who seems perfect turns out to be a jerk, and the guy you can't stand ends up your soulmate.

This history is reflected in our relationship to our native cuisines. The traditional Thanksgiving meal — turkey, cranberries, corn, squash — is probably very similar to the native American diet. We profess to love it, but eat it only once a year. It reminds us of the orgy of death that followed that first meal. We stuff ourselves until we are incapacitated by tryptophan as a prophylactic against violence. Mexican fare, on the other hand, blends Spanish and native elements into a cuisine that manages to be both varied and distinctive. You could eat it every day.

The handsomest place to do so here in Maine is Zapoteca — an upscale Mexican spot that opened this summer. With its dark wood, leather, and brick under dim lights, and its many inviting cocktails, Zapoteca is a good spot to romance the Cortez or Malintzin in your life. Zapoteca calls itself a "tequileria" as well as a restaurant, and many of those cocktails are some version of the margarita. They offer a traditional version of the drink that is filled with tart fresh lime-juice — so tart in fact that it was a bit hard to make out the agave flavor of the tequila. We preferred a version of the margarita that replaced some of the lime with blood orange juice. This combination seemed to enhance rather than obscure the agave. Several drinks feature freshly muddled herbs and peppers to create unusual flavors. For serious tequilaphiles, Zapoteca offers various rare and aged versions, many at quite a price.

The drinks at Zapoteca make it popular as a spot to sip and snack on appetizers. Their guacamole is nicely done — a straightforward and mostly creamy version with just a bit of jalapeño kick. The three house salsas have in common a deep smoky flavor. Both are served with terrific house-made tortilla chips. A special of guacamole taquitos was distinctive mostly for its pool of buttermilk jalapeño sauce — a bit like a spicy pepper ranch dressing. There are three house ceviches, but only one that features fresh fish cured in citrus. The other two are a bit more Maine — one featuring steamed lobster and the other steamed shrimp.

Zapoteca inherited a brick oven from the previous tenants, and they use it to good effect in their entrées — for example to roast four kinds of enchiladas. We tried a version filled with very tender white chicken and jack cheese. What we liked best about this dish is that they were not afraid to really bring the goopy sauce. In this case it was creamy tomatilla sauce that was a bit like a green-chili stroganoff.

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