Not anymore. The only available table left during my most recent excursion is small and wobbly, and stuck right in the middle of the floor. Workers have jammed into the booths for their lunch break, talking animatedly as they clasp their tortas (generously stuffed Mexican sandwiches). The owner, Rosalia Ruiz, has continually added small, thoughtful touches to the place: gauzy, floral curtains to filter the summer sun; red T-shirts embossed with the restaurant's name for the two fast moving servers.
I swallow my booth envy and take the wobbly table. I want my tlayuda.
A glorious street food from Mexico's southern state of Oaxaca, the tlayuda (pronounced klie-YOU'-da) has quickly made it to my short list of culinary addictions this year. It's part pizza, part Taco Bell concoction with pedigree: An oversized tortilla, bigger than the average dinner plate, is griddled and smeared with bean paste, then topped with pork or steak, lettuce, two kinds of cheese and sundry other goodies. Each bite is different, each mouthful a riot of crispy, salty, mellow, meaty and spicy, all vying for your taste buds' attention at once. That the whole mess gets all over your hands and smiling mug as you plow through it just makes it that much more satisfying.
Several restaurants on the outskirts of the metro area now offer tlayudas, but Taqueria La Oaxaqueña serves my favorite. Ruiz has mastered the proportions of toppings. The tortilla is cooked firm but still pliant, and the spread of pureed pinto beans is just thick enough to provide a satiny foundation without becoming heavy. My preferred choice of meat is cecina, tender bits of pork simmered in a spunky red sauce.
And I love the contrast of the two cheeses: the sharp bite of the feta-like queso anejo mixed with the languid, milky strands of quesillo, Oaxacan string cheese.
But what seals the deal here is the salsa bar. Sitting in bowls, each adorned with ladles marked "Thousand Island," are three wondrous salsas -- smoky red, biting green, and guacamole -- to be poured liberally over your tlayuda (or anything else you order here). I was initially put off by the restaurant's guacamole. It's thin with no chunks. But I've since come to appreciate how effectively its glossy consistency melds with the other ingredients.
My plan of attack when I dine at Taqueria La Oaxaqueña is to order a tlayuda, and then one additional something or other. Maybe a robust taco filled with tangy goat meat and a fluffy tuft of cilantro. Or perhaps a chicken leg and thigh smothered in Ruiz's suave, slightly sweet brown mole.
During my last trip, I spot a blurb on the menu that says, "Remember we make homemade tortillas and tamales." I've tried the toasty fresh tortillas many times, but I'd never sampled the tamales. Tucked inside crinkly cornhusks, the masa dough is doused with either red or green salsa and steamed to a crumbly yet moist texture. Memorable indeed.
But don't get too sidetracked into other diversions. Nothing you'll find on the menu will outshine the messy, marvelous tlayuda.
A clear current of home cooking runs through the Oaxacan restaurants that are popping up around town. Part of the pleasure in scouting them comes from discovering the individual interpretations of theses regional dishes.
Fandango in Lawrenceville also crafts tlayudas, but they are markedly different from the others I've tried. The tortilla is thinner, more crackery; black beans, rather than pintos, are used as a base; cabbage, not lettuce, lends crunch to the mix; the cheese is used more sparingly. Cecina is laid on the tortilla in lithe strips, with barely any sauce clinging to it.
I like the tlayudas at Fandango, but I don't love them. They don't have the same measure of lusty, unabashed gusto as others I've tried. There's a prim, pretty variation with steak, cecina and chorizo sectioned off into quadrants that courts my affection. But in the end, I'd still rather run off with the wild child version at Taqueria La Oaxaqueña.
What I have fallen for at Fandango, though, are the moles.
Intricate, mysterious moles seeped into our culinary imagination in the '90s. There's something about chocolate as a savory component that makes us giddy with curiosity. Oaxaca is known as the "land of the seven moles," though it might disappoint chocoholics to know that only two of the seven actually include chocolate in the mix.
The word mole has multifaceted meanings in the Mexican kitchen. In Nahuatl, the Aztec language, molli translates as "sauce." Moler in Spanish means "to grind," the essential technique used to prepare the sauces' numerous ingredients, among which are chiles, nuts, spices and thickeners like bread or tortillas. Food historians speculate that mole has origins tied to the sophisticated cuisines of medieval Islam, which migrated to southern Spain and was in turn brought to Mexico by Cortes and his ilk.
Numerous Atlanta restaurants offer the most common version of mole, but Fandango is the only one I know of that lists three on its menu -- and others as frequent specials. Start your journey with the most famous, chocolate-infused creation: mole negro.
The worlds of flavor discernable in its brown-black depths are almost daunting. You can perceive a hint of clove, the sweet musk of almonds, the gentle snap of poblano pepper, the unmistakable cocoa perfume of chocolate, a base note of chicken stock. The taste is ancient, a romantic mingling of the intuitive and the intellectual. The chicken in this dish? It becomes merely a vehicle for the beguiling sauce.
Other moles may not inspire such florid musings, but they are equally worth exploring. Mole Coloradito is made with the impishly hot guajillo chile, as well as tomatoes and cinnamon. It makes an excellent partner for supple pork. Mole Amarillo (yellow mole), with its spark of cumin, has more than a passing resemblance to curry.
If you're lucky, you may find mole verde listed on the specials blackboard in the restaurant's foyer. Fashioned from tomatillos, fresh green chiles and pumpkin seeds, this verdant variant provides a compelling left turn from the other moles -- less murky, more sprightly.
Fandango also offers an extensive menu of Mexican restaurant standards: quesadillas, enchiladas, shrimp in Diablo sauce. Next to the accomplished majesty of the Oaxacan specialties, though, they pale. Oaxacan cuisine offers such intriguing, sophisticated vistas into Mexican food. I'm holding out for the day, though, when some enterprising restaurateur starts serving tlayudas and lesser-known moles inside the Perimeter. Quelling my Oaxacan jones certainly is racking up the miles on my quickly aging car.
Sides, apps, drinks--whatever. What I want to know is how their beef and pork compares…
Great food, yummy drinks and perfect atmosphere who could ask for anything more! Oh and…
WOW, Cliff writes an article promoting a $9 crappy steak at a gay bar and…
Oh, this is sad.
Great, great food. I have been there 3 times. The smoked chicken wings rock. The…