A Tiny Koreatown Restaurant Hides an Abundance of Regional Oaxacan Cuisine
“You should come here on Sunday. That’s when people in my community [Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte region] show up in their traditional clothes,” says Zeferino Montellano, co-owner of Casa de la Clayuda Oaxaqueña, an Oaxacan restaurant in Koreatown. Located along a strip of Vermont Avenue in the middle of the indigenous Mayan and Zapotec enclaves of Los Angeles, Westlake and Koreatown, respectively, Montellano sells delicious traditional Oaxacan cuisine to shoppers who visit the many discount stores in the area. . Inside, there are a few tables; a steam table with a dozen pots filled with tempting stews, moles and soups; which have nothing to do with an old menu board left by the previous owner.
For his customers in Yalálag, as well as other parts of the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca, weekends are all about caldo de costilla oreada (beef rib soup) with tamales de frijol (bean tamales ), hand-mixed pozontle (a frothy cocoa drink), and tacos serranos – a corn tortilla slathered with savory asientos (unrefined lard), sprinkled with a little cheese, then rolled up and served with spicy salsa roja.
For non-Oaxacans, the breadth of fine dining in Los Angeles’ Sierra Norte comes from Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez at Poncho’s Tlayudas, who whips up exquisite barbacoa, tamales de frijol, or blood sausage to accompany his signature tlayudas. The Sierra Norte of Oaxaca has a rich cuisine derived from the indigenous cuisine of the Zapotecos, Mixe and Chinantecos, and is largely unknown outside the region. Barbacoa in the Sierra Norte means lamb in moist adobo, often roasted in barrels with lots of avocado leaves. Then there is pozontle, the cocoa-based drink brewed by hand with a molinillo (wooden whisk) mixed with corn, panela (unrefined cane sugar) and cocolmécatl (mountain vine). Other regional dishes from the Sierra Norte include caldo de costilla with tamales de frijol, tamales de tres picos (triangular tamales), cuasg (corn with beans), amarillo de zorrillo (skunk in salsa yellow) and many others that are specific to different cities. and language groups.
Many of these dishes, such as caldo de costilla oreada con tamales de frijol, are more often prepared for ceremonies and special occasions, but Montellano de Yalálag’s customers had asked him to serve it. As a result, her cousin Francisca “Panchita” Aquino Montellano, who is the traditional cook and co-owner of the restaurant, expanded the weekend menu with these exclusive recipes. She learned them from her mother, Alicia Montellano, who drove Comedor Licha from her home in Yalálag. Served at patronal feasts like Fiesta Patronal de San Antonio and Fiesta Patronal de San Juan, as well as at weddings and other events, this soup is a rare glimpse into an island community of indigenous Zapotecos who don’t often share their cultivation commercially.
The native Zapotecos of the Sierra Norte are generally not restaurateurs, like their more commercial neighbors in the Valles Centrales. “Until recently caldo de costilla was only available at these community events, but now there are comedians in places like Yalálag doing it during the 12-week season of patron saint events,” explains Isai Pazos Bernabe, a Zapoteco from Yalálag. who is Director of Community Affairs at CIELO, a non-profit organization run by Indigenous women. For Panchita Montellano customers, the weekend is reason enough to savor their favorite dish.
The deliciously funky beef ribs of caldo de costilla are first salted and dried, then soaked in water and finally cooked in a light broth of dried red chili peppers and avocado leaves. The resulting meat is somewhat firm – cured and cured meats are popular throughout Oaxaca – and intentionally gamey, moistened with a translucent red broth and eaten with rolled black bean tamales. The alternating layers of beans and masa flavored with avocado leaves are strictly a utensil for eating this soup and complete the dish by imparting its herbal flavors in every bite.
Another thing to order is the sparkling pozontle, which has a bittersweet molasses finish. Ask for it with rice, which adds a bit of richness to this traditional Sierra Norte drink commonly found at community events in Los Angeles. Pozontle also goes well with caldo de costilla. “The serrano taco is a very simple dish from my hometown in the Sierra Norte,” says Zeferino Montellano. He lays down a large, warm, rolled corn tortilla, enriched with the savory cheese and lard mixture, and balanced with a fiery red salsa.
Feasting on unique foods from the Sierra Norte is reason enough to visit Casa de las Clayudas, but as the name suggests, this is a house of clayudas (also spelled tlayudas), and Panchita Montellano does some of the best in town. Clayudas offers high-quality asientos, the most important ingredient in seasoning this famous Oaxacan street food dish, and artisan moronga, or blood sausage, which Casa de la Clayuda Oaxaqueña sources from Poncho Martinez from Poncho’s Tlayudas, which makes asientos and moronga, and imports quesillo. Typical additions to a good clayuda include meats like tasajo (sack of beef), Oaxacan chorizo, or cecina (marinated pork). The clayuda (crispy tortilla) itself is fresh and there are lots of herbs in the flavorful black bean mash. The exceptional clayudas are then folded, grilled on a gas grill before being cut into large wedges and served with a salsa roja of smoked chilies.
Another feature of this compact restaurant is the cocina económica, which is like a three-course meal consisting of sopa aguada (lentils or other beans), sopa seca (rice or pasta), and guisado (a stew or braise, usually ) . Or the meal could be fashioned into the more familiar rice and beans, served with a guisado on the same plate. American Mexican restaurants call it a combo plate, but cocina económica is actually a style of restaurant that typically cooks regional dishes, a type of place that emerged during the Porfiriato, providing factory workers with quick and easy meals. delicious. It was the Mexican fast food revolution.
Panchita Montellano’s skills shine in Oaxacan dishes like mole negro, caldo de pollo with chayote and green beans, and pig’s trotters in a salsa verde. She also cooks everyday stews like barbacoa de pollo – a succulent spicy stew of dried red chili peppers and chicken broth cooked with avocado leaves. Salsa de huevo, a stack of thin omelets in a tangy salsa verde and, really, just about anything from the steam table make for delicious hearty meals. Featuring savory rice and beans, each combo plate is just $10, with no tax added. The menu of more than a dozen stews reheated on the steam table changes a bit each day, showing the depth of Panchita Montellano’s cooking.
It’s remarkable that such a compact space can be a destination for such great food, from some of the best clayudas in town to hot, ready-made Oaxacan stews to even special dishes from Yalálag. This part of Koreatown has one of the largest populations of Zapotecos in LA, comprising a diverse community representing four of Oaxaca’s eight regions. It truly is an ideal location for LA’s first Yalálag restaurant, run by a skilled cook who makes it all easy. “Back in the Sierra Norte, we were cooking for big events and had comedor, so I learned a lot of recipes from my mother. Making all these stews and changing the menu every day is nothing,” explains Panchita Montellano.
Casa de la Clayuda Oaxaqueña is located at 752 S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown, (323) 509-6297. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.