Photos by Kiki Vassilakis
Four small girls huddle at a plastic table in Oaxaquena Triqui, a small Mexican restaurant and grocery at 77 N. Lake in Albany on a bright-warm Thursday in July. The girls pass around dolls, trade small electronic devices, and giggle in fits, breaking only briefly from their shared world of make believe to peer up at a wall-mounted television that displays a children’s cartoon. Two young couples chat intently at nearby tables. They pause only to give their orders to Gricelda Herrera, the proprietor of the restaurant and the mother of the four children. The modest room is overwhelmed by a rich smell of onions, spices, meats emanating from the nearby kitchen. The quiet whir of activity and quiet polite chatter is suddenly interrupted; my three-year-old daughter has arrived with my wife and me in tow. The sight of a group of girls anywhere near her age has my daughter prancing, chirping and yelping with excitement.
I’d heard about Oaxaquena Triqui from three or four in-the-know foodie friends in various conversations over the last month, but the opportunity to try it only manifested on this late Thursday evening after a long but successful trip to the grocery store. My wife and I quickly agreed we’d like to try it, the absence of equivocation so shocking to both of us that we made our way to the restaurant as quickly as possible. We hadn’t stopped to think exactly how our daughter would fare at a restaurant hailed for its authenticity (Triqui serves cow tongue and grasshopper) and not its ability to serve pizza (hold the crust), cheese sandwiches (hold the bread) and spaghetti (with extra meatballs), some of my daughter’s favorites. Then again, this is a three-year-old who eats palak paneer on a regular basis.
What we found at Oaxaquena Triqui was an environment and menu that made us all extremely happy. The chips y guacamole did not come in the all-too-familiar endless tub served at a lot of chain restaurants, but what was there was worth savoring–bite for bite. My daughter quickly informed us the best way to eat guacamole was to put it on a chip and then devour the chip like a shark. She wasn’t wrong. She happily demonstrated the technique six or seven times.
Sensing how happy we were that she was eating the guacamole she pulled back and examined it, declaring “I’m only going to eat the green parts.” We found that acceptable.
The enchiladas de mole ($12) was immediately striking for the unique thick and spicy mole sauce. It served as a delightfully oppressive topping to the creamy enchiladas. No hints of chocolate here as with many popular incarnations of mole–instead clove, oregano and chile.
The steak tacos ($2.50) were interestingly chewy, almost having a desert-ish quality to them, thanks to their multiple flavors and textures.
The Alambre ($12), a mix of steak and chorizo cooked with peppers and onions and served with rice, tortillas and Oaxaca cheese, maintained an impressive balance between the kick of the chorizo and the succulent marinated steak. There was much more served than even I could have finished in one sitting.
We ordered a plain quesadilla for my daughter, and even that was a treat given that the tortilla was homemade and cheese Oaxacan.
Despite all the talk of meat, the restaurant does have vegetarian options including huaraches with flor de calabaza (squash blossoms) or huitlacoche (corn smut).
Our initial visit to Oaxaquena Triqui gave way to a few more. And it is clear from my time there that the restaurant means many things to many people. It’s an out-of-the-way date spot for some; it’s a reminder of home for those soothed by Triqui’s familiar flavors; it’s a regular haunt for in-the-know foodies; it’s a destination drawing patrons from around the Northeast.
For me and my family, what makes Oaxaquena Triqui so appealing is what may make it less appealing to others. Depending on when you arrive there may be children at play. You’re encouraged to pick your drink out of the cooler. The service is warm but not extremely attentive. You’re served at small tables with folding chairs, and there is the ever-present sound of the buzzer that goes off anytime someone goes in our out the front door.
The front of the building is packed with candles, pottery, hand-spun dolls, bags of spices, Mexican soda, canned goods and various other knick-knacks.
There are no pretensions at Oaxaquena Triqui. “I cook what I know–what I grew up with,” Herrera tells me. There is no grand mission. Herrera came to America a decade ago. She worked fast food, eventually opened a grocery on Central Ave. in Albany with her husband, but flooding destroyed a good deal of their products. They came to an arrangement with their landlord and took a gamble on 77 N. Lake. They opened Oaxaquena Triqui in August 2016, and for now it seems to be paying off, mainly because people recognize its authenticity.
Herrera maintains ties to the small farming village of Concepcion Carrizal, Mexico. She sends money home and receives hard-to-find spices from friends and family in the area. She also maintains relationships with importers in New York City to keep her supply of spices and ingredients flush. She sees the restaurant as a future for her family.
What makes Oaxaquena Triqui such a welcome addition to the neighborhood is that it provides access to an otherwise hard-to-find cooking tradition and does so without the barriers of price, pretension, or pandering. It’s a place I imagine bringing my daughter for years to come–a place where perhaps she’ll make some friends and eventually try the mole.