Wintry days need spicy flavors, and for that, there’s Oaxacan cuisine. Which is why Ellen and I met for lunch on a grey day last week at Copal on Mission Street for well-crafted specialties from the culinary hotspot that is Oaxaca—land of black beans, pozole and most especially mole. Ellen went for a tall refreshing horchata aqua fresca ($4) and a bottle of the Topo Chico sparkling water ($4). I consumed more than my fair share of salted tortilla chips and salsa before our dishes arrived, and I’m not sorry.
Quesadillas are one of my favorite comfort foods, and Copal’s large, housemade tortillas arrived filled with melting Oaxacan cheese, mushrooms and epazote. A tangle of smoky-sour nopales on the side. Tossed with a fruity, tangy salsa de guajillo, the tender ribbons of cactus make romance with the ubiquitous clay pot of earthy black beans topped with queso fresco.
Ellen went for a deep platter of Enchiladas de Mole Rojo ($17), filled with shredded pork tossed with raisins, almonds and tomato. A rich, sweet mole coloradito covered the top of the tender enchiladas, and bands of queso fresco, thin onion slices and diced cilantro lined the tops of the filled tortillas.
Another entree showed off the kitchen’s genius with mole, the molten, multi-spiced sauce of the region. Copal offers four distinctive moles each day—and you can choose your foundation of braised chicken, slow braised pork leg or vegan options. I ordered the mole verde on succulent fork-tender puerco, with the exceptional tortillas and white rice ($19). Revelatory flavors! Some deep spice that reminded me of root beer and cinnamon provided the long finish, but oregano, cilantro, epazote, tomatillo and a welcome jolt of jalapeño did the rest. This was easily one of the most lively dishes I’ve had in forever. I’ll go back soon for that dish alone. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 11:30am-8pm.
Copal Oaxacan Cuisine (plus mezcal bar!), 1203 Mission St., Santa Cruz. copalrestaurant.com.
Holiday Pro Tip
Everybody on your gift list wants to go out for a special dinner, so give your friends and loved ones a gift certificate to your (or their) favorite dining spot. You know the ones. It’s a true no-brainer, an always welcome holiday gift treat.
Dream On at the Dream Inn
Front-load your holiday action by joining Santa for Breakfast at the Jack O’Neill Restaurant. Dec. 17 from 9-11am, the Dream Inn dining room offers a full breakfast buffet, face painting, cookie decorating, story time with local author Lois Ackerman Lawson—and yes, a visit from Santa. $20-$24. Go to Eventbrite for tickets. Armed with the spectacular oceanfront view of the Santa Cruz Wharf and Steamers, Jack O’ Neill Restaurant will also be serving a majorly seasonal four-course prix fixe Christmas Dinner on Sunday December 25, including roast chestnut bisque, beef tartare, dungeness crab, rib eye of beef and a Buche de Noel ($90/person). If you need a special New Year’s Eve dinner, plus live music, Dream Inn has that too: seared lamb, filet of beef, abalone and very special desserts ($105/person). dreaminnsantacruz.com.
There’s a calendar full of tastings and pop-ups at Soif, including a Dec.15 tasting of wines from Big Basin Vineyards. Which reminds me: you should stop wondering how the new Iveta 545 is and make a reservation to have a cozy dinner at the newest downtown Iveta landmark (my recent review will get you primed). It’s just across the patio from Big Basin Vineyards’ new tasting room. bigbasinvineyards.com. Visit both. Life is short.