Once upon a time, there was a little Oaxacan restaurant in far south Santa Monica. It closed in '97, then stealthily reopened a couple of months ago about 20 blocks away in a nondescript mall just south of the Santa Monica Freeway.
But it's a different Tlapazola Grill this time around. It still has chicken in mole negro and barbacoa de borrego, but now Celerino and Samuel Cruz are showing off their California Cuisine experience--they've worked at Rebecca's, 72 Market and Rockenwagner--even more than down-home Oaxacan food.
Take the masa pancake with achiote shrimp. A couple of fluffy pancakes with a good corn flavor sandwich a mixture of shrimp and ranchero cheese; around them is a dark red-orange sauce with the sharp-edged anise scent of hoja santa. It's more or less Nouvelle Oaxacan, and very attractive.
Another appetizer, the salmon vegetable roll, is classic Tall Food. The chopped salmon is rolled up in a flour tortilla and cut on the diagonal into lengths that stand in the middle of the plate, surrounded by three sauces: black, green and red Oaxacan moles. The green is tangy and the red a bit like other Mexican red sauces, but the black one is really distinctive: thin, bitter-ish, almost burnt-tasting, with a concentrated aromatic quality just a little like curry.
The specials are mostly non-Oaxacan. An arugula salad with balsamic vinegar sauce and some salmon-wrapped spears of asparagus. An entree of half a dozen shrimp coated in crunchy sesame seeds, grilled and arranged around another stack of masa pancakes, only this time layered with quite a lot of barely cooked spinach. The whole thing is surrounded by a thin tomato sauce that seems to be just fresh, nearly raw tomato juice.
Even the shrimp chile relleno has avant-garde leanings. The pepper is grilled, rather than fried in batter, and comes with an interesting sweet-sour tamarind sauce. But the best of the remaining appetizers are the plain-sounding quesadillas. In one, the cheese filling is appetizingly mixed with spinach and roasted garlic, and the other is filled with shrimp in some kind of tangy sauce, possibly that red mole.
As for that barbacoa, it's still very good in its refined way. The lamb flavor isn't loud, but it does have the true sweet funkiness of lamb. It comes with a moat of herbed rice separating it from a pool of flavorful black beans. Likewise, the chicken mole in its black sauce is as it was, though a mere plate of chicken in sauce looks a bit severe in this ambitious context.
For my money, the best main dish these days is the grilled salmon with pumpkinseed sauce, and not because of the sauce, decorously rich though it is. It's because of the sweet, fresh grilled salmon, a little crunchy on the outside. Your average Oaxacan restaurant doesn't serve salmon at all, much less work at getting top-quality fish and cooking it a point.
Some Old-Fashioned Offerings on the Menu
Pork loin is served in little chunks, each topped with some slightly melted ranchero cheese, in a sauce with a bit of hoja santa in it. The regular grilled shrimp dish serves the shrimp arranged around a pile of partly toasted vermicelli, along with bits of squash and red and yellow bell peppers in a light lemon thyme broth.
If you see something on the menu that looks old-fashioned, it might be. The chicken tortilla soup is just what you expect, as are the chicken enchiladas with green and red sauces. The chicken tostada is a perfectly good chicken tostada.
The dessert list includes fruit sorbets (lime, bright-red cactus pear and salmon-colored mamey) imported from Oaxaca, which strike me as a bit bland. There's flan, of course, also chocolate and very good coffee flan, sometimes a coconut model. Bunuelo is a fried tortilla cup with chocolate and vanilla ice cream. "A dessert tostada," as somebody called it.
Sometimes on special you find hojaldre, which the waiter describes as "a sort of apple pie." It's a square of puff pastry baked with a few apple slices on top and served a la mode. You find this sort of thing a lot more often at Westside restaurants than in Oaxaca, I'll wager, but I have no problem with it. None at all.
Tlapazola Grill, 11676 Gateway Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 477-1577. No alcohol. Parking lot. All major cards. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30-10 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Dinner for two, $23-$50.
What to Get: masa pancake with achiote shrimp, roasted garlic spinach quesadilla, grilled salmon with pumpkinseed sauce, grilled shrimp with fideo pasta, hojaldre, coffee flan.