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Deep Oaxacan flavor in a tiny corner of L.A.

At La Morenita Oaxaquena, glorious regional dishes like red mole and tlayuda get just the right touch.

July 11, 2007|Linda Burum | Special to The Times

AN enormous floppy-crusted tlayuda con todo, Oaxaca's answer to pizza with the works, obscures the entire small table where a family of four is gathered at La Morenita Oaxaquena on 3rd Street.

The delicate cracker-thin tortilla crust loaded with cheese, supple sheets of grilled meats and wine-red chorizo over a smear of savory black beans may be a Oaxacan standard, but La Morenita's version is to local Oaxacan restaurants what Mozza's is to most L.A. pizzerias at the moment.

As with pizza, a tlayuda's excellence relies on the quality of its elements: the right touch of bay leaf and lard to season the beans; the perfectly cured meats generously layered over the blanda -- the outsized tortillas made with a regional starchy corn variety.

Someone in this kitchen, it has become evident after many visits, has the kind of instinctive knack that turns home cooking into art. Every dish has its own magic.

Nothing about La Morenita's low-visibility location hints of the culinary treasures within. The year-old restaurant, on the fringes of Koreatown, where signs in Hangul mingle with those en espanol, is undetectable if you're traveling east on 3rd. It's stashed into the east-facing corner of a mini mall -- the kind with a doughnut shop and laundromat that must have a thousand duplicates around L.A.

But step through La Morenita's door and you're surrounded by sun-drenched hues reminiscent of the colorfully dressed crowds surging among the mounds of produce at the enormous Benito Juarez Market in Oaxaca City.

The restaurant's earthy-orange and citrus-green walls hold sparkly tin-framed mirrors (the kind vendors sell at the city's zocalo, or central plaza) and a stately movie-poster-size photograph of the 16th century Baroque cathedral Iglesia de San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya. The vibrant colors of the room, the images and the aroma of toasting chiles sneaking out from the kitchen perfectly convey the region's aura. A region whose indigenous pre-Hispanic specialties were, to those of us who grew up eating Cal-Mex combo plates and norteno cooking, Mexican dishes we'd never dreamed existed until the mid-'90s.

Even today as more Oaxacan restaurants open, the regional cuisine remains vastly in the minority. So the opening of a great Oaxacan place is cause for celebration.

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The mole and more

ALTHOUGH black mole has been called "the defining glory of the Oaxacan kitchen," it is the coloradito (red mole) -- that is the glory of La Morenita's kitchen (that's not to say its black and green moles should be ignored).

Take a spoonful of this incredible sauce, composed of more than two dozen ingredients, and allow its waves of flavor -- from the nutty and mellow to the slightly incendiary -- to flow over your palate. Have it with chicken or pork on a platter with the rice and pureed black beans that accompany entrees, or with enchiladas al gusto.

Composed of several tortillas dipped into the sauce, these unfilled enchiladas are topped with your choice of meat: perhaps the cecina -- wafer-thin pork rubbed with a chile marinade; the tasajo, salted beef that's been slightly dried to concentrate its flavors; shredded chicken; or the intensely seasoned Oaxacan chorizo. Each of these meats may also be had in a variety of ways: atop a tlayuda, stir-fried with onions and peppers, as a garnish for enfrioladas (tortillas soaked in black-bean puree), or topping a memala, a pie-shell-shaped corn crust spread with beans lightly sprinkled with cheese.

Oaxacan-style empanadas, grilled to a burnished gold, are dinner plate-size constructions of thinly patted corn dough, folded over such exotic fillings as huitlacoche (mushroom-like corn fungus) or chapulines (grasshoppers) and then grilled. The flor de calabasa (zucchini flower) version, holding masses of buds and a light layer of melted Oaxacan string cheese, is a genuine wonder.

Chile relleno, a mild poblano stuffed with gently seasoned chicken picadillo, enrobed in a souffle-like coating, is surprisingly delicate. Tamales are traditional: banana leaf-wrapped with creamy, nearly paper-thin masa covering the fillings.

Goat meat fans will appreciate the barbacoa roja de chivo -- gently stewed lean meat in a mildly tingly russet-colored broth or served as tacos de barbacoa rolled up in tortillas, with a little broth on the side.

Occasional disappointments include a bland mole amarillo with chicken and the $20 parillada (more than twice the price of most entrees): mixed meats, stuffed pepper, sausage and cactus salad -- a bit skimpy and served unsuccessfully on a bed of lettuce rather than a traditional stone grill.

For dessert -- with any luck -- they'll have their house-made tuna sorbet. No, this is not an attempt at Ferran Adria-esque "laboratory cuisine." Rather, it's made from the tuna that's a juicy red cactus fruit -- very simple and perfectly refreshing after the manifold spicing of Oaxaca's signature dishes.

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food@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

La Morenita Oaxaquena

Location: 3550 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (213) 365-9201.

Price: Side orders / snacks $1.75 to $5. Entrees, $7 to $20.

Best dishes: Coloradito (red mole) with chicken or pork, flor de calabasa empanada, tlayuda con todo, tacos de barbacoa de chivo (goat), chile relleno de picadillo de gallina (stuffed chile).

Details: Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Lot and street parking. No alcohol. Visa, Mastercard.

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