Oaxaca Norte, con mucho mole: Santa Cruz’s Copal zeroes in on distinctive Mexican culture and cuisine
Almost a year after “a really long soft opening,” Copal is finally ready to brings its full vision of the cuisine and aesthetic of Oaxaca to Santa Cruz diners.
Yes, technically, Copal is a Mexican restaurant. And certainly Santa Cruz County is plentiful in that particular category.
But in the real world, “Mexican restaurant” isn’t a very useful term. As you would expect from a nation of 130 million people, Mexico contains countless regional cuisines and flavors, no less varied than the cuisine of its neighbor to the north. And in that regard, Copal — the Mission Street restaurant that officially opened last summer — might be one of the most distinctive dining experiences in the region.
Copal is the brainchild of married duo Stuyvesant “Stuyvie” Bearns Esteva and Noelle Antolin, who own and operate the downtown craft beer & Spanish tapas spot Lúpulo, and their business partner and Copal’s head chef, Ana Fabian Mendoza. The restaurant specializes in the cuisine and aesthetic of Oaxaca, the state and its namesake city in southern Mexico known for its vibrant arts and culinary culture.
There are menu items at Copal that would be recognizable to those familiar with mainstream Mexican food, such as enchiladas and quesadillas. And there are those that might not be so recognizable, such as the tlayuda, an open-faced, dinner-plate-sized tortilla piled with meats, salsa, cheese and other goodies.
But when it comes to native Oaxacan cuisine, the name of the game is mole, the signature series of robust sauces often made from chilies, nuts, fruits or chocolate, five of which are offered at Copal. Mendoza is a native of Oaxaca, and her moles have won awards at the local Mole & Mariachi Festival. The mole universe alone is enough to keep the adventurous diner occupied.
“The black (mole) is unique because the chile ancho is charred,” Antolin said. “The Mole Coloradito has a bit of a brighter flavor, and it also has the chile ancho, but it’s not as roasty, and you get more of the fresh tomato flavor and the spices and the nuts. And Mole Verde is very distinct because the herbs are front and center, and it’s green. It’s thickened with cornmeal and it’s more subtle, and delicious.
And the Mole Estofado, well, that’s an entirely different animal because it has a lot of the same ingredients but it has little twists like capers and olives, which gives you a contrast with the tomato, a kind of sweetness and brininess, and it’s just delicious.”
(Copal is also building a reputation in the drink department, with a wide selection of mezcals, and a cocktail menu that includes a house-created margarita and cucumber-and-cilantro mezcal drink called a Santa Iguana, among others.)
Copal’s aesthetic design is as reflective of Oaxaca’s colorful culture as its menu. The building, at Mission and Laurel Streets, doubtlessly catches the attention of the hundreds who drive past for its sleek, imposing black. (Flower Bar, another new business in Santa Cruz, also opted for the all-black exterior; one more and we can declare it a trend).
Inside, however, the black gives way to the rich, saturated colors common in Oaxacan art, as well as echoes of art forms such as the elaborate cutout patterns known as papel picado, and the alebrije, a dazzlingly colored, often surreal figurine, many times of a mythical or magical creature, that define a brand of Oaxacan folk art. Copal’s logo, of a long-eared rabbit, is presented in alebrije style.
This blast of Oaxacan culture is well-earned, thanks mostly to Mendoza’s background in Oaxaca. Esteva also grew up in Mexico, much of that time in the state of Guerrero, just to the west of Oaxaca. “My parents loved Oaxaca,” he said. “When I was little, I would go with them to Oaxaca a lot.”
Esteva and Antolin had planned to open Copal in the spring of 2020 and were well into the ramp-up leading to opening when the COVID-19 pandemic brought their plans, and most of the American economy, to a grinding halt. They were in the midst of interviewing bar staff, with much interior construction work left to be done, when the shutdown took hold. Eventually, they opened in July as takeout only. By September, they were serving on their small outside patio before another shutdown at the end of the year.
“If you’re going to look at a silver lining,” Esteva said, “it’s that we got a very long soft opening. We got to work out the kinks in a small way. When we first opened for takeout in July, it was like, literally, our internet broke because we were getting so many orders. The whole system collapsed on us. So, that was a good sign. As soon as we were open for takeout, the tickets (for orders) were flying around like (paper on the floor of) the stock exchange.”
“By that time, we had a pretty good following on social media,” Antolin added, “and it was all organic. Local people were very excited. That was what carried us through, quite honestly.”
Only now is Copal growing into what its founders originally envisioned. They are encouraged that a significant portion of their clientele thus far are somewhat familiar with Oaxacan cuisine. For others, there is the thrill of the new — such as chapulines, a headlining appetizer that is in fact sautéed grasshoppers, with chile and lime.
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“I like to read the crowd,” Antolin said, “and figure out, OK, so what’s your experience with Mexican food and with spices in general. And I get a sense that people have traveled a bit in Mexico and have had mole, or they just might be adventurous. And I might say, yeah, try the tlayuda, it’s classic Oaxacan street food. You’ve probably never had anything like this, and people just fall in love it. Some people come for the first time and are just struck by how so different it is.”
For menu, hours and more about Copal’s Oaxacan cuisine, visit its website.