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Oaxaca's Subtle Complexities

Authentic flavors--especially in the moles--are El Danzante's specialty. Fans keep tables full.

January 24, 2002|BARBARA HANSEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At El Danzante, a little Oaxacan place on Pico Boulevard near Western Avenue, the food is not watered down for American tastes. And it's terrific--often, every table is occupied.

The moles (most of them are available in either pork or chicken versions) include a mole negro that is complex with herbal and berry tones and not too sweet. It approaches the best I've tasted in Oaxaca itself.

Coloradito, a deep, brick-red mole, balances the acrid taste of dried chiles with some sweetness and rich hints of chocolate. Quite spicy, it is also used as an enchilada sauce. And that is one fine plate of enchiladas, accompanied by beans and grilled Oaxacan chorizo, or, if you prefer, cecina (a thin square of grilled spicy pork) or tasajo (much the same made from beef, but without the chiles).

El Danzante's version of green mole (mole verde) is hot with jalapenos and dominated by the anise flavor of hierba santa, the characteristic herb of Oaxacan cuisine.

"Estofado" means stew, but in El Danzante's estofado mole, the components aren't distinct in the familiar way; they're blended into a smooth, creamy sauce that is slightly sweet and mild, although the menu says it contains chiles as well as tomatillos, raisins, olives, nuts and spices. A subtle aroma of almonds drifts up from the plate.

Amarillo, the yellow mole, is rather dull compared to these, but that's the way it is in Oaxaca. Lightly thickened with masa and available with either chicken or beef, the sauce is seasoned with cumin, cloves and chiles, but not enough to make it spicy-hot. It comes in a bowl, along with potatoes, green beans and chayotes.

On weekends, the restaurant serves barbacoa de chivo (barbecued goat). It's stained red with chiles, as is the consomme that comes with it. Black beans cooked to a creamy puree and perfumed with fragrant Mexican avocado leaves accompany the barbacoa and other dishes. With their strong anise-like scent, these leaves add an intriguing flavor.

Other Oaxacan dishes on the menu include enfrijoladas (tortillas dipped into black bean puree, folded and topped with cheese), cheese-filled quesadillas and empanadas filled with chicken in yellow or green mole. And then there are clayudas and memelas.

The clayuda is, in effect, a Oaxacan tostada. The base is not crisp, fried tortillas but a somewhat dry and chewy extra-large tortilla. The restaurant imports these from Oaxaca. They are daubed first with asiento--the browned residue left when pork is fried for carnitas--then spread with black beans and topped with shredded cheese and a few strands of green cabbage. Clayudas come with any of the Oaxacan cured meats or with quesillo, a Oaxacan string cheese.

Memelas are thick tortillas topped, like clayudas, with asiento, beans and cheese. Owner Armando Aguilar makes the tortillas for the empanadas, quesadillas and memelas himself, flattening the masa in an extra-large hand press.

This hard-working young chef leads a double life. During the day, he cooks at El Danzante. At night he heads for Cafe Med in Sunset Plaza to cook Italian food while his wife, Maricela, takes over at El Danzante. A few Italian dishes have crept onto El Danzante's menu, among them fried calamari and a mussel and clam soup.

Drinks made with watermelon, cantaloupe, tamarind or jamaica flowers go well with this food, but they are not always available. The most unusual is the Oaxacan specialty agua de chilacayota. The chilacayota is a squash that separates into strands, much as spaghetti squash does. El Danzante makes the drink the classic way, adding chunks of fresh pineapple, shavings of lime zest and Mexican brown sugar, which contributes a molasses flavor and dark brown color. Despite the murky hue, the drink is light and refreshing.

Breakfast includes typical Mexican eye-openers like chilaquiles (tortilla hash) but also an egg-white omelet stuffed with mushrooms, poached eggs on spinach on an English muffin and French toast with almonds and raspberry sauce. There are lattes, espressos and cappuccinos too, the ambience of Sunset Plaza transported to the other side of town.

El Danzante, 3071 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (323) 735-4688. Open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. No alcohol. Street parking. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, about $14.

What to Get: negro (black mole), verde (green), coloradito (red), estofado, clayudas, enchiladas, barbacoa (weekends only), agua de chilacayota.

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