Photograph by Edmund Barr
Soledad Lopez introduced Oaxaca’s complex saucy moles and earthy cured meats to L.A. diners when she opened Guelaguetza in 1994. Her tiny restaurant, now in West L.A., serves brilliant spice-laden stews, grasshopper snacks, and pudding-like tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Oaxaca’s location, on a mountain-ringed plateau deep in the south of Mexico, has allowed the ancient pre-Hispanic cooking of the Zapotec people—and less well-known inhabitants—to remain nearly unadulterated into the 21st century. Now the recipes have found their way into dozens of restaurants around the city.
La Asunción | North Hills
A fresco of Oaxaca’s La Asunción Cathedral and hand-embroidered dresses hanging from the ceiling capture the ambience of the Los Santos family’s homeland. Groups enjoy the pizzalike tlayuda as an appetizer; the huge, cracker-thin tortilla is smeared with black bean puree, showered with shredded cheese, and topped with a choice of meat. Families often share the molcajete, sizzling meats and roasted nopales (cactus) mounded on a hot stone grill. House-made ice creams come in flavors like cactus fruit, mamey, and leche quemada. » 8712 Sepulveda Blvd., North Hills, 818-891-3635.
El Danzante | Koreatown
Owners Armando and Maricela Aguilar have cheered up this modest two-room storefront with forest green tablecloths and painted accents. Toasted chiles—ruddy guajillos, maroon cascabeles, and wrinkly, heart-shaped anchos—are blended with toasted nuts, seeds, and other ingredients to make moles and salsas. Seldom-seen dishes from Oaxaca’s Pacific coast include sopa de almejas: clams, mussels, and shrimp in a chile-laced broth. Grilled salmon in a sauce rests on a bed of corn kernels, and the crema catalonia, a crème brûlée, rivals that of any French kitchen. » 3071 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., 323-735-4688.
Monte Alban | West Los Angeles
Named for the ruins of an ancient Zapotec town, this cozy restaurant features wall scenes and handwoven tablecloths that recall the region. The four moles—black, green, coloradito, and delicate, cumin-infused yellow—brim with well-calibrated seasonings. The menu offers empanadas stuffed with squash blossoms or exotic huitlacoche mushrooms and a skilled barbacoa made with kid. Breakfast includes higaditos—chicken and egg dumplings in a substantial broth. » 11927 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., 310-444-7736.
Tlapazola Grill | Marina del Rey
Photograph by EDMUND BARR