11127 palms blvd (@ sepulveda)
los angeles, ca 90034
there’s not much intro for guelaguetza other than it’s one of those places “ive always wanted to try,” but takes me forever to get to. this week, finally i tell myself i have no excuse not to pay a visit to the authentic oaxacan restaurant that’s conveniently on one of my routes home.
the restaurant faces out toward palms ave., so the large parking lot shared with trader joe’s and long’s is behind the restaurant. we entered through the backdoor and walked through the somewhat dark, tiny dining room that feels comfortably like someone’s home kitchen. at 7:00 all the tables are already taken - about half by mexican families and couples jabbering away in spanish, and the other half by, well, others. everyone looks like they eat here all the time.
since guelaguetza is full, we wait, now in the front of the restaurant. it’s a bit of a mexican mini-mart, with a small, high case of food things, what look to be imported cigarettes, and candy for sale. there are different-sized bottles of rich golden liquor that looks like tequila. i pick it up. it’s mezcal. there’s a worm inside. i put it back down. i wasn’t sure about dinner now.
the wait isn’t long. our host/server seats us at a table tucked in the corner, against a yellowing wall that has been purposely treated to look old-authentic, eroded away in several spots, exposing the brick underneath. for some reason though, the walls, the strangely scary marionettes hanging on the far wall, and the thin glass over the multicolored tablecloths, don’t feel cheesy the way it does in some other places.
i’m overwhelmed by the menu. there is an english translation beneath the spanish descriptions for everything listed within the plastic-protected sheets, but the language isn’t the problem; it’s the menu itself. the foods are unfamilar to me - this ain’t burritos, taco, and fajitas – and except for breakfast on the first page, the dishes are grouped into confusing categories. i can’t tell the difference amongst “lunch and dinner,” “comida oaxaquena,” and “especialidades.” oaxacan food terms are explained at the top of one page, but i didn’t quite get how they fit into the whole ordering process. photos on the facing pages show dishes, but most of them look strangely alike – something hidden under a flood of red, black, or green mole, for which guelguetza is known. when the waiter comes back to take our order, we definitely need more than a few more minutes to figure out the menu. um, there’s goat and *gulp* crickets, too. he makes a couple of suggestions and drops off a plate of chips.
the chips were covered in a thick red salsa. stop! warning! red = hot. deep red = super hot. a careful inspection, and i found a chip with just a dab of salsa. i took a cautious, crisp bite, and surprise! there were no fire alarms. in fact, the salsa was scrumptiously sweet, with a faint smoky smoothness. the cheese that was sprinkled on top added nothing, except to show how very beautifully red the salsa was in contrast. i snatched up another chip and happily crisped away, but still puzzled over the menu.
on his way to another table, our server thoughtfully stopped by to show us some of the dishes he had recommended. they looked delicious. when he came back, though, we ended up ordering two totally different things.
enfrijoloadas are rolled tortillas in a black bean sauce, and served with a choice of chorizo, tazajo, or cecina. we got the tazajo, which according to the oaxacan lexicon on the previous pages, is sliced salted beef round. i daintily dipped a fork in the mashed black bean sauce that covered the entire plate for a taste, but i quickly abandoned my civilized untensil for a tortilla chip to take a heaping scoop. the beans were delicious and flavorful. however, i wasn’t as jazzed about the beef. though i think it absolutely tasted the way tazajo is supposed to, it was so super thinly sliced and grilled well done, that it reminded me a little bit of a moister beef jerky. the rice, not the usual dry, red mexican rice with flecks of unidentifiable vegetables, was a perfect half softball of buttery, fluffy, slightly nutty rice. i tunneled in from the bottom, where it had soaked up the bean sauce.
since i don’t eat rice (i guess, except when it’s soaked in black bean sauce!), i ordered a side of vegetables with the verde de espinazo de pollo. normally a side of vegetables means a little serving of steamed-to-mushy vegetables, salted, and maybe buttered. guelaguetza’s plate of potatoes, green beans, broccoli and mushrooms weren’t crisp, but nowhere near mushy, and seasoned with something beyond salt and butter, though i’m not sure what. maybe it was just salt and butter, but even if it was, those vegetables were good.
i had already eaten almost all of the vegetable side, so i left the chunks of potatoes, onions, and beans alone on the plate, and went for the chicken in the verde de espinazo, a green mole. the meat wasn’t tender per se, but it fell apart in shreds that, if it didn’t soak up the mole, i would have thought to be somewhat dry. unlike the rich and creamy black bean sa
uce on the enfrijoladas, the verde de espinazo was lighter and fresher. i thought it would taste like the somewhat bland tomatilla-based salsa verdes i have had at the mexican chains (eek! i admit it!) but it was a little different, a little more complex. the menu said it was made from a spicy green chile, which meant it was spicy flavor-wise, not spicy heat-wise, which sort of diappointed me (the heat part, not the flavor part). i had to have some heat, since nothing yet, not even the sweet salsa on the chips, had been spicy. i grabbed a bottle of tapatio from another table, then thought to myself, is this the equivalent of pouring a-1 on a filet mignon at ruth’s chris? would i offend? but that thought passed in a nanosecond and i shook that bottle with utter abandon all over my plate. how’s that for fire alarms?
one thing that was, for sure, a bad choice was the clayuda sola, which sounded interesting on the menu: a large, thin, handmade tortilla baked on clay. it came out on a large 12” pizza pan, and had domed up during the baking to look like a giant piece of crispy naan. it felt like it would be crisp, but when we tried to break it apart into bite-sized pieces, we had some difficulty. the clayuda was hard, not crisp. i bit into it, and really thought i'd chip a tooth. even soaking it in the black bean sauce or the mole verde didn't help.
mexican desserts have always been a pass for me, except for pastel de tres leches. guelaguetza has a few traditional things. there’s arroz con leche, gelatinas, and dulces regionales, none of which appeal to me. the platanos fritos sounds like something i would order, but after a meal that was already fairly large, would be too heavy, especially with sour cream and walnuts. now that only left flan, which like all other pudding-y desserts (including creme brulee) i have never quite cared for. but sheesh, why not? maybe i’ve just never had good flan. the server told us oaxacan style flan is made from tres leches, so maybe guelguetza’s flan would finally do it for me. *eh* not really. it still tasted like flan, with a stronger milk taste. but it sure looked pretty enough to take a picture.
i didn’t looooove guelaguetza. i liked it, the mole was interesting, and now i can say i’ve tried it. i'm sure at some point i’ll go back to try the other moles, but i’m not totally sure it’ll be all that soon, especially since i totally embarassed myself by walking into the men’s bathroom on the way out (but that’s a whole different story). but guelaguetza is very reasonably priced (there was only one thing over $10 on the menu), comfortable inside, and that sweet salsa sure was good!