On late sunday mornings, I sometimes like to breakfast at Guelaguetza, a wonderful authentic Oaxacan restaurant on 8th Street in Koreatown.
It's companionable, sitting at one end of a communal table, enjoying Soledad Lopez's superlative huevos rancheros or eggs scrambled with chorizo or tomato and jalapenos. Families stop in after Mass for pan de yema, an eggy sweet bread that's dipped in big cups of cinnamon-laced Mexican chocolate.
A musician plays popular Mexican songs on a portable keyboard while waiters run back and forth from the kitchen carrying what look like pizzas covered with crumbled white cheese. They're actually clayudas, huge, pale gold disks of masa patted out by hand and cooked on a clay comal (griddle) to give them a slight bell curve. Smeared with black bean paste, they're garnished with shredded cabbage, lightly salted queso fresco and thin slices of tasajo (salty dried beef), cecino (chile-marinated pork) or, my favorite, stubby little Oaxacan-style chorizo streaked with orange.
The menu claims autentica comida Oaxaquena--and it is authentic right down to the deliciously crunchy crickets fried in oil and chile (even better with a little lime squeezed over), which are another of the traditional clayuda garnishes.
When Lopez recently opened a second location near another large Oaxacan community--Culver City and West L.A.--I had to try that, too. Like the original, it's small with walls painted bright melon, green and cobalt blue and tables covered with embroidered cloths under glass. A terra-cotta tiled roof sets off the kitchen, and one corner of the restaurant is devoted to selling groceries and takeout. A few times a week, there's live music, usually an accomplished guitarist who gallantly asks what you would like to hear--"Besame Mucho?" "Guantanamera?"
Though it may be one of the least expensive restaurants ever to appear in these pages, Guelaguetza's food is good by any standard, as different as night and day from the messy, fat-laden plates of many popular Mexican-style restaurants. Lopez's food is rigorously authentic regional cooking. It's actually Oaxacan market food and, unless you've eaten in that region, much of the menu will sound unfamiliar.
The southern Mexico state of Oaxaca is known as the "land of seven moles," referring to the intricate, labor-intensive pastes made from spices, chiles, nuts, seeds and chocolate. Lopez could take the easy road and buy her mole pastes. Instead, she has the special chiles, herbs and other ingredients flown in from the market in Oaxaca.
It's definitely worth the effort: Each mole is distinctive, a complex layering of flavors, made entirely from scratch. I love the gently spiced amarillo, or yellow, mole, especially in one of Lopez's crusty handmade empanadas. The chewy foot-long masa turnovers are filled with chicken and amarillo scented with the anise-like herb hoja santa. Of course, she has the famous chicken in mole negro, that glorious mole the color of liquid tar with a lingering undertow of bitter chocolate.
For a quick hit, try the Oaxacan-style tamale. Wrapped in a banana leaf, it is a bundle of tender, steamed masa dough entwined with chunks of chicken and that superb black mole. There's a smoldering coloradito, too, a brick red mole ladled over chicken or pork. A green chile mole heats up an earthy soup with chicken or pork bones, chayote squash and potatoes as big as your fist.
It pays to read menu descriptions carefully. For example, in Oaxaca, enchilada does not mean the familiar rolled tortillas stuffed with chicken or cheese. Here it's a supple corn tortilla, dipped in either red or black mole, folded like a handkerchief and sprinkled with cheese. Chiles rellenos are plumped up with a savory forcemeat of chopped chicken, chiles, olives and raisins.
However carefully you read, though, it won't prepare you for the barbecued goat taco: a huge handmade tortilla rolled to the circumference of a roof tile and filled with chunks of kid (that's baby goat) cooked with dried chiles and avocado leaves to make a subtly smoky sauce. I love this dish.
What else? There are pork riblets rubbed in chile and deep-fried, a terrific cactus paddle salad with raw onion, cilantro and queso fresco, and lightly salted Oaxacan cheese grilled until it's blistered on the outside, accompanied by yet another intriguing salsa.
Afternoons, you can stop in for a refreshing glass of horchata, made from scratch just like at Casilda's, a stand in the Juarez market in Oaxaca. The sweet rice drink is served over ice in a tall glass garnished with chopped melon and pecans and fuchsia-colored cactus fruit puree. It's the best thing in the world to soothe the heat of chiles. Try the champurrado, too, an ancient drink made with corn flour gruel topped with chocolate foam, a little like drinking a watery, chocolate-flavored Cream of Wheat.