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From Oaxaca With Strife: It's Tough Getting the Tasty Goods

A prolonged strike is delaying shipments of specialty foods from the Mexican state, so some Southland restaurants make do.

September 29, 2006|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

If you are having trouble getting your hands on fresh spinach these days, you may be able to commiserate with the owners of Mexican restaurants serving cuisine from the state of Oaxaca.

Political unrest in the southern Mexico region has translated into U.S. shortages of imported traditional staples, among them fried grasshoppers, spicy mole paste and crunchy tortillas known as tlayudas. These are essential to the complex cuisine that often draws on dozens of flavors for a single dish.

Guillermina Reyes, who owns three Oaxacan restaurants in Orange County, said some of her shipments of quesillo, a string cheese, had arrived late and "near-spoiled" because of large-scale worker protests and strikes that began in May.

"I've had to tell some customers we simply don't have their favorite dishes," Reyes said.

Restaurants that import these products are borrowing from one another until shipments arrive, shelling out more cash for larger orders to forestall future shortages or simply telling customers to pick alternatives.

Many restaurateurs won't use ingredients that don't come from Oaxaca (pronounced wha-HAH-kah).

"If you don't get them there, the food just doesn't taste right," said Jaci Santiago, co-owner of Antequera de Oaxaca, a neighborhood restaurant on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. "If I don't have oregano from Oaxaca, I just can't make the food. It has a different texture."

Santiago Garcia, who owns Mi Lindo Oaxaca in Hollywood, agrees: "The question is the flavor. You can't make certain things without the products from Oaxaca. Our countrymen know the difference. We can't trick them."

Among the products they struggle to get are grasshoppers, known in Mexico as chapulines. Considered delicacies by some Mexicans, they are caught in bulk in Oaxaca and exported after being cleaned and fried with chiles, garlic and lemon juice. They look and taste like chile-colored, curled-up potato chips.

When Alfredo Amezcua, a Santa Ana attorney, went to El Moctezuma, a Oaxacan restaurant on Fairview Street last week, he found out he couldn't get his usual order of grasshoppers.

"I really missed them," Amezcua said. "They are the most exotic appetizer you could find. They really melt in your mouth."

Late Wednesday, businesses in the state of Oaxaca declared they would shut down Thursday and today in support of the workers. The protest will further affect Southern California restaurants that serve Oaxacan cuisine, especially neighborhood eateries that rely on small, frequent shipments and serve immigrants who know the taste of the real thing.

Also in short supply is paste to make mole (pronounced MOLE-ay), the national sauce in Mexico, as beloved as bearnaise in France or chutney in India. Mole is a zesty blend of dozens of ingredients, among them chocolate, almonds, chiles, garlic and onions. Restaurants also are having trouble finding black avocado leaves, jiotilla cactus fruit and tlayuda.

Reyes, the Orange County restaurateur, said the tlayuda, served with toppings like a pizza, just wasn't the same if it was made north of the border.

Mario Ramirez, owner of El Fortin in Fullerton and two other Oaxacan restaurants in the Southland, said he had faced a few delayed shipments because of the crisis, "but that is nothing compared to what the restaurants in Oaxaca are dealing with. There is no business because of this."

Luis David Quintana, editor of El Imparcial de Oaxaca, a daily newspaper in the state's capital city of the same name, said the shortages and delays for Southern California restaurants were not unexpected.

"It's no surprise. There's very little transportation coming in or out of the city, and people from other states who moved our goods are literally afraid to come here," Quintana said. "The harmony that once characterized this city is gone."

Oaxaca's 70,000 teachers, who earn about $600 a month, have been on strike since May demanding higher wages and better working conditions. The strike has attracted more than 20 other groups, including farmers, union members and business owners who are calling on Gov. Ulises Ruiz to resign over alleged abuses.

It's painful for Lucio Aguilar to see his native land in turmoil. And as owner of Sabores de Oaxaca Restaurant in Los Angeles, he lost shipments of products or had to throw out food that arrived in poor condition.

To combat the problem, he hired an experienced chef who has been making the traditional dishes with products bought in the United States.

"The customers like the dishes just the same, maybe even more," he said. "Everyone got so used to it that I don't know if we will be buying from Oaxaca again."

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