Oaxaca Ole!

In the movie industry — where Tom Brandt spent most of his life, as a theater owner — there’s a fixed product.

You negotiate for a film (and make very little off it). People come. You click a button to start the movie. You sell popcorn and soda (at insanely jacked-up prices). People leave.

“It’s not brain surgery,” Tom admits.

The restaurant industry — his current passion, as owner of several restaurants (including the very popular Oaxaca, in Compo Acres Shopping Center) — is not brain surgery either.

But there are many more moving targets than at a multiplex.

Chips, a margarita, and Tom Brandt.

“People want to be seated immediately,” Tom notes. “Whether they came in early or late, the customer is always right.

“Making food is an art. Human beings make that art every day. One person thinks it’s too spicy. The next person wants the spices kicked up a notch. ”

In the movie business, Tom says, “once a show starts, you sit back.”

In a restaurant,  “you’re always on your toes.”

Tom and his staff are on their toes enough that — in just a few months — Oaxaca is one of Westport’s go-to places for fine dining.

It’s not the only Mexican restaurant here — in fact, Tom loves Viva Zapata. But his place has carved out a special niche. It serves elegant, creative cuisine from Mexico’s southernmost province.

It’s in a strip mall — not nearly as funky as Viva’s — but like that streetside Saugatuck spot, Oaxaca is fun. The decor includes lizards, a fruit-and-vegetable stand, and 2 enormous “community tables” that encourage mixing and mingling.

The mixers — and the regular patrons, and those who come to  hear Friday night live music — rave about the fresh salsa. The homemade mole sauces. The squash soup. The way-tender beef baracoa (served in parchment paper). The ceviche Veracruz, duck confit tacos, and desserts like pepita-scented flan and ultra-moist tres leches.

Plus perfect margaritas.

You might not expect all that from an Indian head chef named Prasad Chirnomula. (He’s also the mastermind behind Tom’s other Oaxaca — a major player on the New Haven dining scene — and his Thali restaurants in New Canaan, Ridgefield and New Haven.)

But, Tom points out, traditional Mexican cuisine is extremely close to Indian food. Both are heavily influenced by spices, complex sauces, and plenty of pre-roasting.

Tom Brandt is proud of Oaxaca’s decor — including the hubcap-and-bottle lighting fixtures.

Though Compo Acres is not exactly Restaurant Row, Westporters have found Oaxaca. “It’s an excellent crowd,” Tom says. “People here really appreciate their food. They’re keenly aware of food quality and service.”

Oaxaca benefits from its proximity to the Westport Country Playhouse. The restaurant draws pre-theater diners, and has catered several events there.

That connection is important to Tom. He’s spent over a decade on the advisory board of the American Theater Wing, and votes on the Tony Awards.

Tom’s family owned and operated movie theaters for 3 generations. They owned over 100 screens, including the Trans-Lux chain. Tom spent several years as CEO of theaters in the Southwest and Rocky Mountains. He also owned a jazz club at the South Street Seaport that booked Lionel Hampton, Ramsey Lewis and Dave Brubeck.

Food, music and entertainment are constants in Tom’s life. With all that he’s done, he’s learned to see the big picture.

Every Oaxaca patron gets a lizard to take home.

Which is why he’s so excited about Oaxaca — but also about new ventures in Westport.

“The Blu Parrot will be great,” he says, referring to the live-music venue opening soon at the site of the former Jasmine restaurant in Saugatuck.

“The more restaurants we have, the more energy there is in town. And the more energy, the more people will come here.”

Including, of course, to the fine-dining-but-down-home, Mexican-with-a-touch-of-Indian, fun and entertaining Oaxaca, hidden in plain sight in a Post Road strip mall.

19 responses to “Oaxaca Ole!

  1. Sounds Yummy! When hubby and I schedule a date night soon, we’ll be there! Thanks for the write up Dan! Happy Monday!

  2. Nice article. I’ll stop in as well.

  3. Villa del Sol is still the best Mexican food in town!

  4. I have been to Oaxaca twice. The food is not worth the trip.

  5. I like Taco Bell.

    I wish there was one in Westport 🙁

  6. All the new restaurant competition in town forces them all to step up their game. It will be interesting to see who survives the inevitable bust to this boom.

  7. Dan,
    Let’s put a poll in here: What is your favorite Mexican restaurant in Westport?

  8. Hmmm. That space was the Compo Lunchonette at one time.
    Drove past there today. Long way from NH

  9. who is j hooper? is there more than one in westport? bc there is no way my hubby figured out how to leave a comment when he can barely turn on the computer.

  10. Try Senor Salsa in Fairfield…near Office Max. At one time, they were going to open also in Westport in what was Connolly’s (at Sylvan Road South)

  11. Villa del Sol !!!

  12. Ole! Viva Tom! A fun place, certainly worth stopping in. Nice salsa and the squash soup was really good, not just him saying so 🙂

  13. Love the community table idea!

  14. We went during their first week, other than expected glitches opening week I liked it. Food was good, not great (I have high standards and lived in SoCal so I may be a bit too critical here), but the kids menu items were spicy!
    I’m sure they’ve taken it down a notch or two.
    I like Villa del sol, though its not consistent.
    Swore off Via Zappata 10 years ago and I’m still boycotting them!
    I liked Zoe (?), the place next to the vacuum store, unfortunately they went out of business.
    I like the crazy Mexican place on Washington Ave in SoNo, Red LuLu.
    And I really like Valencia Luncheria on Main Street in Norwalk, though it’s South American Latin.

  15. Oaxaca has mediocre margaritas, topped with a pineapple slice.(?) Food was average and not Mexican at all. I think I’ll stop by Villa del Sol tomorrow for some good food, real salsa and great drinks!

  16. Probably a food snob :)

    Oaxaca’s food was so-so at best. It was better when they were offering Indian food. Sadly, they won’t make it if the food does not get better.

    Villa del Sol’s only redeeming quality is the margaritas are so strong, after half a drink you won’t care or taste the food (and that’s the good part).

    Zapata has been awful for decades. Unfortunately, Fairfield County has nothing resembling edible Mexican cuisine. Once a restaurateur has truly great Mexican food, I will beat a path to the door. Yes, I know I sound a bit snobbish but the south of the border offerings around here are just mediocre at best. 🙁

  17. Thanks for sharing the link but regrettably it seems to be not working? Does anyone have a mirror or another link?