last week, i ventured to mexico’s region of oaxaca via gueleguetza restaurant. oaxacan cuisine was good, but i’ll probably need to try it a few more times to truly appreciate it. this week, i just need a good healthy dose of cali-tex-mex, so i pay a long overdue visit to my favorite aunt, tia juana.
in the galaxy of los angeles mexican restaurant stars that get all the attention – el cholo, la serenata, casa escobar – and little hidden gems that people seek out specifically for that hole-in-the-wall feel, tia juana’s stays under the radar. but somehow, though tia juana’a gets very little airplay, the dining room on a sunday night is absolutely packed. i‘ve known about it for years - ever since the first time i went to the bed, bath and beyond next door to outfit my apartment, and it looks like most of the diners are a local crowd who also have been coming here for years. there must be some unspoken rule (which i’m obviously breaking now) to keep tia juana’s “in the family.”
chips and salsa are usually a good benchmark for what the rest of the meal will be like. tia juana’s chips are good – darker and thicker than most mexican restaurants’, thus crunchy, rather than crispy. they’re not salted, so that’s a bit of a dispappointment, but easily remedied by triple dipping in one of dos salsas served in tiny cups on a condiment stand. the salsa verde is a little too mild, but the roja is smoky and spicy enough to make me notice. we were down to the dregs before even ordering, so when we asked for more, they brought us a bowl of it.
most of the combinaciones and larger entradas come with a choice of soup or salad. i waffle, because although the salad is only simple greens, it has my favorite dressing, blue cheese. the teetering, though, is but a nanosecond, as i can never pass up tortilla or albondigas soup. in a when-harry-met-sally moment, i asked too many questions, had too many stipulations, and tried to substitute too many things on one of the combinaciones, so the waiter very politely suggested i simply order a chile relleno a la carte, and a bowl of soup on the side. oh! that’s much easier. *apologetic giggle*
i had forgotten that tia juana’s soup is neither albondigas nor tortilla, but looks like a simple vegetable soup with a brothy tomato base. another quick fix of crushing tortilla chips into the soup to add body. i go in for a dip, and the spoon emerges from the broth with soft, melted globules clinging for dear life to it. whoa, baby. there’s cheese in there. i don’t love the mealy texture of the potaotes, so i left the chunks in the bowl, but very quickly slurp slurp slurped the rest of the vegetables and cheese out of their soupy misery.
what strikes me as the best part of dinner at tia juana’s centers around the homemade tortillas, hand formed and baked by two appropriately costumed women in the front. they work in a small area with a giant tortilla oven as the centerpiece. it’s partitioned off by a brick wall, to keep curious spectators (and obnoxious phtographers like me) out of their way, but low enough for diners to get a feel for the homey authenticity. every meal, even dishes that are made with tortillas, comes with a little covered container of flour or corn tortillas. i’m not sure if its the raw ingredients or the oven on which they are made, but the tortillas are soft, springy, and thicker and darker than most. in san antonio, we used to butter hot tortillas, roll them up, and eat like that. how funny, tia juana’s serves butter with their tortillas, too.
the women also make the quesadillas, which we ordered as an appetizer. they add a more-than-generous handful of cheese to baked tortillas, fold them over, then give them a gentle press to seal. popular culture sees the moon as cheese, but not so; the moon is, in fact, a quesadilla. ours was a beautifully grilled half moon flour tortilla oozing a halo of cheese, and covered with dark toasted bubbles that resembled craters and moonspots. with a a dip in the salsa and heap of guacamole (which they didn’t give us enough of), i almost went in orbit.
everything at tia juana’s comes to the table lightning fast, so fast that i have to wonder if my chile relleno was made in the morning then re-heated. but given that tortillas are hand formed and grilled when ordered, i just give the kitchen staff an a+ for efficient execution. my a la carte relleno, relaxing in its own bath of warm tomato salsa, was encased in a soft, light coating that soaked up the sauce like a sponge. perhaps i had been spoiled already by the quesadilla, but the inside didn’t have as much cheese as i hoped. still there was enough
to weep out when cut open, creating a delicious mess of cheesy tomato sauce.
the tacos, upon first arrival, looked strangely like vietnamese spring rolls, but they had simply been wrapped in a translucent white paper to hold their shape en route from the kitchen to our table. this was for good reason. on unrolling the paper, the overflowing tacos spilled carne asada and lettuce onto the plate, which i promptly rescued with my fingers for a taste. the beef was a little dry, a little chewy, but again, the salsa roja, with a little aid from the red sacue on the chile relleno, was a universal cure-all. i never complain about refried beans (they’re fried for pete’s sake), but the rice was dry, and re-confirmed my self-diagnosed “allergy” to rice.
we just didn’t have room for dessert, but no matter, since tia juana only makes flan (never one of my favorites). the entire meal was less than $12 per person, and that even included the very necessary negro modelo to wash it all down.
oh well, so much for keeping it in the family.
tia juana mexican restaurant
11785 w olympic blvd (@ granville)
los angeles, ca 90064