Who doesn't love a pizza? That's why Oaxaca's tlayuda may have even more appeal than its famous moles. Restaurants often call the tlayuda a Oaxacan pizza to help customers daunted by the unfamiliar name — like a pizza, it's a round flatbread with savory toppings — but that's where the similarities end.
The base is a large, thin corn tortilla toasted on a comal until dry and firm. The base is spread with asiento, the brown drippings from rendered pork skin. Next comes a layer of mashed black beans, the preferred bean in Oaxaca. (It's common to cook the beans with the anise-scented leaves of the aguacate criollo, the native Mexican avocado tree.) Then on go shredded cabbage or lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, Oaxacan cheeses and Oaxacan meats. The big three meats are tasajo, which is thin-sliced beef; cecina, which is spiced pork; and Oaxacan chorizo. Some restaurants also offer carne asada and chicken.
A good tlayuda will be artfully arranged with generous amounts of quality ingredients; some restaurants offer more variety in the toppings. A basic tlayuda will have cheese and maybe one kind of meat along with the vegetables, and you can usually add more if you ask. So where to get a very good tlayuda? Try one of these eight L.A. restaurants.
Antequera de Oaxaca
Located near Larchmont Boulevard, Antequera makes a basic tlayuda, marked V for vegetarian, which comes with beans, cabbage and cheese. There's a charge for adding avocado and tomato and another charge for meats. Unless the tlayuda is vegetarian, it's spread with asiento. The beans are cooked with avocado leaf. A nice touch is placing a fried serrano chile and a grilled Mexican green onion on top.
Antequera is the old name of the city of Oaxaca. Green and white tablecloths are from the town of Mitla in Oaxaca state, but other decorations aren't Oaxacan. The east wall outside is dominated by a mammoth mural of Frida Kahlo amid sprays of jagged paint, making the restaurant a neighborhood landmark. 5200 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 466-1101
There's nothing Oaxacan about this restaurant; executive chef Eddie Garcia was born in Los Angeles. His shaven head is decorated with folkloric tattoos and makes him look like an Aztec warrior, which comes in handy when he's pursuing one of his passions: Aztec dancing. His other passion is getting creative with regional Mexican food, and at the moment he's fixated on the tlayuda.
In September, Garcia's first tlayuda appeared as a special, worked out with a Oaxacan prep cook. Garcia replaced the thin Oaxacan base with a thicker circle of corn masa, which he says holds the beans better. Instead of black beans, he used Great Northern white beans, seasoned with chiles de árbol. Then he topped the tlayuda with a mix of smoked gouda and Oaxacan cheeses, then house-made chorizo. Next: crisp chapulines (grasshoppers) and a sprinkle of cotija cheese. The tlayudas come to the table on a banana leaf on a wooden board.
Garcia will come up with a new version each month. For October, he's using a blue corn masa base and the same beans. The toppings are guajillo-roasted cauliflower, charred pasilla chiles and Oaxacan cheese. Most tlayudas are huge: Garcia's are a manageable 8 inches. 11616 Ventura Blvd, Studio City. (818) 579-4264, www.cocinacondesa.com
Los Angeles' best-known Oaxacan restaurant excels with the tlayuda, providing a greater variety than any other restaurant. There are seven on the menu: three without asiento and four without beans. The bean-less tlayudas allow toppings such as Guelaguetza's black mole to shine. The most unusual is the tlayuda epazote, brushed with asiento, covered with cheeses and sprinkled with fresh epazote leaves. Wider in appeal is one topped with crumbled chorizo and cheese; the other bean-less option is a black mole tlayuda with scrambled eggs.
The big splurge here is the tlayuda Guelaguetza with the works: three kinds of meat and quesillo, as well as queso fresco. The more modest tlayuda tradicional adds to the basics a choice of one meat or quesillo.
The vegetarian tlayuda comes with black bean paste, lettuce instead of cabbage, queso fresco, tomato and avocado; mushrooms and nopales make up for the lack of meat.
One hazard in eating tlayudas at Guelaguetza is that orders come with tortilla chips sprinkled with coloradito mole and cheese. These are so delectable that it's easy to fill up on them, meaning that all or part of the tlayuda may wind up in their special tlayuda takeout box. 3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 427-0608, www.ilovemole.com
Yes, there is a genuine Oaxacan pizza. It's made here with a corn tortilla base instead of a crisp tlayuda and asiento is omitted; otherwise, the components are the same.
La Mayordomía is a market, panadería and tortillería as well as a restaurant. The front window is lined with breads. The meat and cheese department offers Oaxacan quesillo and cecina prepared with beef and chicken as well as pork. Mangoes, mameys, pineapples, squash flowers and fresh avocado leaves cluster in the produce section. There are also fresh corn tortillas, including the large white blanditas that are favored in Oaxaca. Oaxacan posters and checked tablecloths decorate the restaurant area. Order a basic tlayuda or La Quebradita (the broken one). This tlayuda is folded, then cut into thirds. Try it with carne asada. The plate comes with a cup of red salsa and a cabbage salad with tomato.
Like Guelaguetza, La Mayordomía sends out a plate of tortilla chips with coloradito mole as a starter. Or snack on chapulines prepared with garlic, a la Mexicana, grilled or spicy (a la diabla) while waiting for the tlayuda. 5892 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (323) 232-1541, www.lamayordomia.com. Sister restaurant Expresión Oaxaqueña has the same menu. 3301 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 766-0575
Monte Alban restaurant
This Westside restaurant provides plenty of Oaxacan atmosphere to go with the tlayudas. A mural shows a horse drawing the huge stone that grinds maguey hearts for mezcal. A flowered, lace-trimmed dress from Tehuantepec hangs at the back. The heavy wood chairs are carved with what looks like a motif from the archeological site Monte Albán near Oaxaca city, and a display case holds Oaxacan breads for sale.
The tlayudas are standard but quite well done. The basic tlayuda tops the beans with tomato, avocado, salsa, cabbage, cheese and one meat. The "tlayuda mix'' adds one more meat and string cheese (quesillo). The meat choices are tasajo and cecina, called beef and pork on the menu for those unfamiliar with Oaxacan food. These are the only two tlayudas. They're made with asiento but can be adapted for vegetarians. 11929 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 444-7736, montealbanlosangeles.com.
Oaxaca on Wheels
Getting a tlayuda on the run means tracking down this truck, which wanders from Inglewood to Whittier to outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as other places. (Its website lists locations.)
The 13-inch tlayuda includes bits of the three main Oaxacan meats, shredded cabbage, avocado, cheese and, if they have it, tomato. The base is smeared with asiento, "lard," the guy on the truck calls it — and then with black beans.
It's an adequate tlayuda but not exceptional, and if ordered to go, there's no box to hold it. The option is to fold it, which spoils the effect. The price is high, considering a fairly long wait standing while it's assembled, and the awkwardness of eating on the street. For the same amount or less, a comfortable restaurant will provide a tlayuda that is as good or better, along with chips, drinks and other amenities. But that would mean giving up the cool food truck experience. (424) 200-3126, oaxacaonwheels.com
This restaurant close to downtown is as atmospheric as Monte Alban. It's decked out with brickwork, folkloric art, a tile floor and papel picado (cut paper) overhead. Old-time Mexican music plays in the background.
The two tlayuda options are tlayudas with asiento and cheese, or one meat and tlayuda mixta, with three meats. What sets this one apart is the quality of the meat, which is cut and prepared in the kitchen, not by an outside butcher.
A thin slice of grilled chicken breast on a tlayuda was tender and well seasoned; the cecina was just as succulent. The restaurant uses quesillo from Oaxaca, which is more flavorful than domestic brands.
A Oaxacan drink is a must here. Deep golden tepache is made with fermented corn, not pineapple shells, which is more common. Tejate, a pre-Hispanic concoction of corn, cacao, mamey seeds and other ingredients, is available only in temporada de calor, the menu says. (This means hot weather.) Horchata with pink cactus-fruit syrup and nuts is a pretty drink and is served all year. 3337½ W. 8th St., Los Angeles. (213) 427-3508, www.missaboresoaxaquenos.com
Open a little more than a year, this small, bright space introduces the tlayuda to Hollywood types. The menu shows the question they would probably ask, "What's a tlayuda?" followed by an explanation.
The owners aren't Oaxacan, The blue and gold walls are hung with local art rather than Oaxacan mementos. And there's no asiento on the tlayudas — to keep the fat down, the server explained, which Hollywood types appreciate. There's a vegetarian tlayuda for them and also gluten-free and vegan menu options.
The tlayudas are fine, not altered for newbies. The corn bases come from a Oaxacan market. A Oaxacan butcher prepares the meats. The black beans that line the base are not refried but puréed with a dash of fragrant Oaxacan avocado leaves. The top of the line classic supreme tlayuda is smothered with tasajo, cecina, chorizo and strands of quesillo, which is Oaxacan string cheese, along with lettuce, tomato, onion and sliced avocado. The vegetarian tlayuda has sauteed bell peppers, mushrooms and onions.
The restaurant uses the crunchy tlayuda bases in chilaquiles as well, puts the tlayuda meats into tacos and offers Oaxacan black mole. Trendy accompaniments are water in a Kerr canning jar and BruChata — housemade horchata combined with cold-brew coffee from the Bicycle Coffee Co. across the street. 5450 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 261-4667, tlayudala.com
If you'd rather get your tlayudas to-go, or make them at home, here's a Oaxacan market that has a particularly good version, plus a couple others with all the ingredients you'll need to make your own:
Aqui es Oaxaca
This Westside market not only stocks tlayuda bases, meats, cheeses, black beans and asiento but makes a three-meat tlayuda to eat there or take out. 11614 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 313-4813.
El Buen Gusto Oaxaqueño
Located inside the Rinconcito Oaxaqueño Market, this meat counter displays tlayuda bases made from three colors of Oaxacan corn. Tasajo, cecina and chorizo are prepared on the premises. Chicken chorizo is available as well as pork. Other products include dried Oaxacan avocado leaves, Oaxacan chiles, chocolate and moles. 2596 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 830-3306