Discover the ancient traditions and exotic flavors of Oaxacan cuisine at Monte Alban
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
In recent years the ancient cuisine of Oaxaca has become much more available in Los Angeles, to widespread confusion among gringos who stumble upon one and expect familiar California/Mex flavors. This is the cuisine of an older culture, one less affected by the innovations of the conquistadores and those who followed them. The sauces are richer, more complex and altogether different, and so even familiar items taste exotic.
One of my favorite Oaxacan places is Monte Alban Restaurante, which is tucked in a strip mall on Santa Monica Boulevard. It doesn’t look like much from outside, but the vibrant folk art and murals of its interior give a sense of cultural pride. The menu is full of unusual items, and you may feel inclined to retreat to something you know. like a taco or burrito. Resist the urge — they’re good here, but other options offer rarer delights.
You might start with a molote, the equivalent of an Indian somosa made with a corn crust. It’s a crisp casing for potato and chorizo, a great little snack, and I am always in danger of over-ordering these because they’re so tasty. If you like mushrooms you might also consider an empanada de huitlacoche. This corn fungus has a delicious earthy flavor like concentrated morels or truffles, and it’s terrific packed into a thin-crusted turnover along with onions and a delicate sauce. If you’re very adventurous, you might order chapulines — grasshoppers sautéed with garlic, lime juice and a dash of chili. They don’t have a huge amount of flavor and can be compared to a delicate, crisp shrimp. Macho guys like to order these with beer, and any leftovers can be packed into children’s’ school lunches to delight and horrify their friends.
Another item that should be ordered if it is available is stuffed squash blossoms. One of the techniques the Oaxacans did adopt from the Spanish was cheese-making, and their style of cheese is great when stuffed into pumpkin flowers and fried.
The emblematic dish of Oaxaca is mole, a type of sauce made with ground nuts, seeds and herbs, often with chocolate as a base. There are several kinds with varying degrees of hotness, and you should try as many as you can. The chicken tamales here are a good place to start — they’re topped with a black mole that is velvety, rich and just a little hot, like a mild Thai curry. The yellow mole, which is hotter, is often served with beef dishes, and there are several variants on red mole, which is lighter and sweeter.
One way of trying several is to order a clayuda, a kind of Oaxacan pizza on a smoked cornmeal crust. This has an unusual cardboard-like texture that can take getting used to — Americans are used to having their pastry either crisp or soft, and this is neither. After a few bites you just enjoy it for what it is: a great platform for a slathering of black beans, avocado, salsa, cheese and meat. You can get it vegetarian or topped with grilled pork, chicken or tasajo, thinly sliced grilled beef that is chewy and tasty. Ask for some of the different mole sauces on the side and you can get a taste of all the flavors, but beware — the clayuda is big and filling, easily a meal for two.
Other specialties here are barbacoa de chivo — a tender goat stew in a spicy red chili sauce — or a molcajete, a mix of grilled meats, cactus paddles and vegetables doused in sauce and served in a small cauldron made from volcanic rock. The cactus paddles have an intense taste slightly similar to bell pepper. Some people love it, some don’t — the only way to find out is to try it.
Beer and wine are offered, but I’d recommend one of the fruit drinks, juices or milkshakes that are another specialty of this region. These will vary with the season, but their horchata, a milky drink with rich flavors of nuts, cinnamon and vanilla, is particularly good.
There are newer restaurants that experiment with popularizing or fusing Oaxacan flavors, but Monte Alban remains my favorite. The family members who own the place give very personal service and are usually available to take time to explain unfamiliar dishes, and they help make the experience enjoyable. Prices are modest and portions large — take a few friends, fill the table with items you’ve never heard of, and start exploring.
Monte Alban open from 8 a.m. to 11 pm. Monday through Thursday and from 8 a.m. to midnight on weekends. Vegetarian items available.
Monte Alban Oaxaca Restaurante, 11929 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 444-7736 montealbanlosangeles.com