Oaxacan food, it has been noted, may recently have become what Yucatecan food was a decade ago: a culinary souvenir of the hippest destination in Mexico, also the most exotic kind of Mexican food on the block.
Near the beach in Santa Monica, on a stretch of surf shops and video stores, a few yards from a bowling alley, El Texate sits in one of the last places you'd expect to find a Oaxacan restaurant in the Los Angeles area. It looks like a surf-dude bar centered around a giant TV. Before you open a menu, unless you scope the plurality of tables that happen to be occupied by Mexican families, you might feel that memelas and nicuatole seem less likely here than tacos and Corona--there's even a sign aimed at German tourists on the window. A shrine to the Virgin is built up in a corner; between the dining room and the bar hangs sort of a surrealist's macrame display supporting cacti that look as if they're floating in air.
El Texate--the name is the owners' spelling of \o7 tejate\f7 , a traditional summer drink of cornmeal, chocolate and walnuts--may not be the single best Oaxacan restaurant in town (I like the superb El Guelaguetza in Koreatown), but it serves pretty good margaritas and is authentic to the point that its menu owes almost nothing to standard Mexican-restaurant cuisine.
Enchiladas, for example, are the Oaxacan kind, tortillas dipped in mole and rolled, then garnished instead of stuffed with chicken and a few crumbles of salty, white cheese. \o7 Clayudas\f7 , more or less the Oaxacan equivalent of pizza, are plate-size dried tortillas, smeared with a black-bean puree and the signature crumbled cheese, garnished with a small piece of chile-impregnated \o7 cecina\f7 (beef jerky). \o7 Memelas\f7 (thick, fried cornmeal platforms) are also smeared with black beans and sprinkled with cheese.
Oaxacan empanadas, leathery envelopes of cornmeal baked around a few tablespoonfuls of stew, probably serve the same dual lunchbox/lunch purpose in Oaxaca as the impenetrable turnovers called pasties do in the mine country of northern Michigan.
Sometimes El Texate can be a little too authentic: No other restaurant north of Monte Alban may serve the dish called \o7 igadito\f7 , a sort of fuzzy, bland matzoh ball made out of scrambled eggs and plopped into a mild chicken broth, but \o7 igadito \f7 is not going to be replacing the fajitas platter in Los Angeles anytime soon.
Of course, the most famous dishes of Oaxacan cooking are the moles, thick, rich sauces composed of as many as three dozen different roasted chiles, nuts and seeds, ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle and thinned out with a little broth, as perfect a sauce for poultry as any \o7 beurre blanc \f7 or \o7 bigarade. \f7 When you ask for mole here, the waitress patiently waits until you specify which kind of mole you'd like: mole \o7 negro\f7 , tar-black, sweet-bitter, with a specific gravity that lies somewhere near that of plutonium; oddly herbed \o7 verde de pollo\f7 ; the bright-red spice mixture that heats up the goat \o7 barbacoa \f7 to almost the point of incandescence. The mole called \o7 amarillo\f7 , especially mild, with a clear chile flavor, a strong top note of cumin and the sort of slightly oily texture of gravy in a chicken-dinner restaurant, seems almost like an ideal version of TV dinner enchilada sauce, but is somehow apt here in this stew of vegetables and odd cuts of beef. (Whenever I order \o7 amarillo \f7 here, I spend a few minutes trying to figure out the bowl-shaped pieces of beef in the stew. Kneecaps?)
It's the mole \o7 coloradito \f7 that's the best food in the house, brick-red, sharply spicy, a little smoky, with the roundness of toasted grain, more pungent than the \o7 negro\f7 , everything you're looking for when you order mole . . . and no kneecaps.
* El Texate Oaxacan Restaurant
316 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 399-1115. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Full bar. Lot parking in rear. Dinner for two, food only, $11-$15.