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Monte Alban Adds Flavor of Oaxaca to West L.A.

Cuisine from Mexico's deep south offers its own blend of Spanish, indigenous elements.

January 15, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Westside is clearly going Oaxacan. Guelaguetza, the Oaxacan foodie mecca in Koreatown, has opened a branch in Palms, and Santa Monica already had a funky little Oaxacan place of its own, El Texate. Now West L.A. boasts Monte Alban, a plain, spacious, whitewashed, terrific little place on Santa Monica Boulevard a block east of Bundy.

It serves an emphatically different sort of Mexican food from what we're used to around here. Oaxaca is deep in the south of Mexico, down where the coastline starts running straight east and west, and its cuisine represents a totally different blend of Spanish and indigenous elements than a carnitas burrito.

On one hand, it still uses an Aztec word (clayuda) for a kind of tortilla and makes antique dishes such as enfrijoladas and entomatadas (like enchiladas, except that the tortillas are dipped in black beans or tomatoes, rather than chile sauce). On the other, it revels in cooking with European ingredients such as raisins and olives. The cuisine as a whole tends to be sweet and perfumy, rather than peppery.

Monte Alban's appetizer list naturally includes clayudas--big, crisp, pizza-like tortillas topped with black beans, avocados, lettuce, crumbly white cheese and, optionally, thin slices of pork (cecina) or beef (tasajo) fried brown. But that's about the least unusual appetizer.

The Oaxacan empanada, for instance, is not the usual pastry turnover. It's like a dry enchilada: a big corn tortilla folded over a thick filling and toasted on both sides. You can get all kinds of fillings--chicken, beef brains, green mole--but the classic Oaxacan empanada uses chicken in creamy gold-orange amarillo sauce. It includes a big sweet leaf of hoja santa, with its complex, sharp-edged anise flavor.

The local variety of tamale, pun~ete, is folded up in a banana leaf, rather than rolled in corn husks. When the packet is opened up, the filling is a long flat rectangle of masa with a speed bump of filling in the middle. The masa has the porcine aroma of real lard, and the filling can be a spicy sauce such as mole negro or just sliced peppers.

A molote is a crisp puff of dough, like the breading of a beach-town fried shrimp, filled with diced potatoes, chorizo, black beans and cheese; at 75 cents, it's a guilty pleasure on the cheap. Monte Alban also makes good quesadillas in a sharp red sauce and a non-Oaxacan snack called memela, a flat sope-like deal of masa topped with greens and black beans. It gets its fascinating nutty flavor from asiento, the brown residue that settles to the bottom in homemade lard.

The entrees not only have intriguing sauces but also well-cooked meats. The chicken is tender and almost fluffy. There are versions of barbacoa de chivo around with more striking condiments, but Monte Alban's has (in addition to the profound funkiness of goat meat) a texture not stringy but almost buttery.

What everybody expects to eat at a Oaxacan restaurant is Oaxaca's famous moles. The jet-black mole negro served here gives a brief impression of burnt bittersweetness followed by the aroma of cinnamon and cloves. Coloradito, a dark red-brown sauce with a complex chocolaty flavor, is more like the familiar mole poblano. The mole amarillo, which also shows up in the empanadas, has a chipotle-like hint of smoke. Only the mole verde is disappointing. You can get it with either chicken or pork backbone (espina--a classic Oaxacan ingredient), but the sauce tastes pretty much like pea soup.

There's also pollo estofado in a wonderfully rich, grainy brick-red sauce of tomatoes, olives, raisins and sesame seeds. The big comfort food here is chilaquiles, a mush of torn-up corn tortillas and slightly tangy tomato sauce garnished with either tasajo or cecina.

The moles, unlike main course dishes at most Mexican restaurants, come with rice but not beans. There's actually a separate part of the menu for dishes served with beans (always black beans). Here's where you get steak or fried fish, or a truly exotic chile relleno--it's stuffed with chicken, tomatoes, almonds and raisins and tastes like something from 16th century Italy. But the best part of this section is cecina adobado, for which the thin fried pork slice is topped with fried onions.

For dessert, there's flan, rice pudding and fried plantains, but the unique desert is nicuatole. For this, finely ground cornmeal is laboriously simmered until it has the consistency, and even glossy look, of a hard-boiled egg (one with a little splotch of pink color). It's slightly sweet and pleasantly grainy.

By the way, if you find a bit of cinnamon stick in your nicuatole, it means good luck. (If only it meant you get another helping.)

BE THERE

Monte Alban, 11927 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 444-7736. Open 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 9:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. No alcohol. Parking lot. MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $18-$32.

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