SOUTHFIELD — There is a wonderful incongruity to the scene. In a place so quintessentially New England, you aren’t expecting to find food so typically Oaxacan.
But alongside a sylvan byway here lies the Southfield Store, a cafe and bakery where patrons sit elbow-to-elbow on Thursday nights and feast on regional Mexican dishes like sopa Azteca and chile relleno. “The food is amazing, incredibly authentic,” says Karen Duffy, a devout patron from nearby Norfolk, Conn. “The first time I ate here,” she adds, “everything was so delicious, I felt like I had sparks shooting down my neck.”
Weekly Oaxacan nights have drawn customers to this village in the southern Berkshires since 2007 and are driven by chef Gustavo Perez. Proprietor Peter Platt first hired Perez as a dishwasher when he was chef at Wheatleigh in Lenox. Perez skillfully climbed the ranks, and when Platt and his wife, Meredith Kennard, purchased the store six years ago, Perez came aboard. The pair’s primary venture is the renowned The Old Inn on the Green, located down the road in New Marlborough.
Perez plies his trade in a converted country store and gas station that dates to the Depression era. With worn maple flooring and an open design, the restaurant feels like a loft and houses several communal tables, enhancing the convivial vibe. The kitchen lies at the back of the house, occupying a quirky nook that was once a service bay for Packards and Hudsons.
Most nights, Perez plates the inventive American cuisine for which the restaurant is known, but as the weekend draws near, he revisits his childhood favorites. “Oaxacan cuisine is much more evolved, much more complex than those of other Mexican regions,” explains Perez. “There are Spanish and French influences . . . Native American too.”
Hailing from Oaxaca City, the 42-year-old chef often channels the kitchen of his mother, Catalina, who shared several family recipes, including the secrets to her beloved black mole. The region is known for its seven versions of this staple sauce, and Perez’s take is archetypal, blending rare chilhuacle peppers and pasilla de Oaxaca, a smoked chili featuring notes of walnut, with chocolate and other spices. The result is a dark, intense elixir that is ladled over roast chicken breast or pork loin.
“Our aim is to use locally sourced ingredients whenever possible,” says Kennard, who oversees Oaxacan night. Her garden has supplied zucchini for Perez’s soups and provides cilantro for his ambrosial tacos, both fish with mango salsa and chorizo al pastor with pineapple. Her Berkshire soil also yields more hard-to-find ingredients, like epazote, a pungent, almost lemony herb used in his Oaxacan quesadillas and his stuffed poblano peppers, filled with mushrooms foraged in nearby forests.
Other essentials have traveled a bit farther, like the cactus leaves for Perez’s nopalitos salad, with queso fresco and a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. Moreover, his mother ships native flower petals destined for his botanically inspired and tangy hibiscus margaritas. “It’s about sharing a culture and a cuisine,” says Perez. “I want to be as traditional as possible. At first, I didn’t know if people were going to accept it, because it’s much different from Tex-Mex. The flavors are cleaner and more distinct.”
This piquancy makes even the most customary selections anything but standard. Few leave without tasting the elotes, fresh corn on the cob with aioli, cheese, and chile de arbol, and the roasted tomato salsa, ground in a Mexican mortar and pestle and paired with hand-rolled tortilla chips.
“You wouldn’t think you’d find something so unique in such a little town. It’s a lovely and inviting place,” says regular diner Birgit Clague, who is with her husband and three young children. “And the flavors are something you won’t encounter anywhere else.”
The Southfield Store, 163 Norfolk Road, Southfield, 413-229-5050, store.oldinn.com. Mexican dinners on Thursday nights run through October.
Matthew Bellico can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.