Eighth Street is becoming one of the most interesting restaurant streets in L.A., Korean barbecue joints bumping up against pupuserias , Chinese handmade-noodle restaurants down the block from the last of the old-line Ambassador district steakhouses, Korean coffee houses near Latin chicken grills. Now there’s Guelaguetza, the tiniest place, a few tables and some feathered ornaments on the walls, blaring brass-band music, a dining room that sometimes seems half taken up by buckets of homemade beverages and woven baskets of peppers. Named after the midsummer Zapotec fiesta, Guelaguetza is one of the few Oaxacan restaurants in town, and perhaps the only local place to specialize exclusively in the food of the region. The only dishes you are likely to recognize on the menu are quite unlike their border-Mex equivalents.
At Guelaguetza you’ll find the sort of Oaxacan dishes you’ve only read about in travel magazines, the dense, banana-leaf wrapped tamales filled with pungent mole , the unstuffed enchiladas sprinkled with cheese and bathed in a musky, red chile sauce, the homemade drink tejate , served in a gourd, that looks like the Cuyahoga River circa 1967 but tastes a little like oatmeal. There is a terrific spiced drink, chilacayote , made with steeped shreds of squash. The rice drink horchata is garnished with chopped pecans and topped with an inch of a syrup that may remind you of melted Popsicles.
When you show up late in the afternoon, everybody is sipping horchata and eating clayudas , sort of pizza-size Oaxacan tostadas smeared with black beans, sprinkled with lettuce, topped with crumbles of white cheese and a few squirts of smoky chipotle salsa. On top of the clayuda , more as a garnish than anything else, is a bit of meat: the salt-dried beef called cecina , the salt-dried pork tazajo or four tiny spheres of mellow Oaxacan chorizo. A couple days a week, there are Oaxacan empanadas, tough, thin envelopes of masa , about three times the bulk of South American empanadas, filled with a stew of chicken and amarillo mole , or with a tasty, curiously herb-flavored saute of fresh mushrooms, squash flowers and white cheese. Nopales (cactus) salad is fresh and clean.
Of the classic seven moles of Oaxaca, dark, complex sauces flavored with seeds, nuts, herbs, chiles of every description, Guelaguetza has quite a few: the coloradito , brick-red, elusively spicy, with a slightly tangy sweetness; the amarillo ; sometimes even the dusky chichilo . Verde de espinazo is an astonishing mole -like stew, a thick, spicy broth enriched with pureed spinach, barely tart, exotically flavored with mint, that is quite unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. Estofado , a sweet-sour yellow mole with a tang of sharp green olive, is a little like a cross between traditional black mole and the tomato sauce you might encounter on a good fish a la Veracruzana . In addition to those, Guelaguetza uses a different mole to sauce the enchiladas, and still another to fill the tamales.
Barbacoa de chivo , intricately flavored, almost the essence of stewed goat, could pass as one of the better birrias in town, though the meat is less interesting than the broth; chiles rellenos , are hot chiles in a loose, crisp, egg batter, stuffed with minced chicken, thoroughly good.
But the black mole , based on ingredients the restaurant brings up from Oaxaca, is extraordinary, rich with chopped chocolate and burnt grain, undertones of toasted chile, wave upon wave of textured spice, as simple yet as nuanced as a great, old Cote Rotie, and so much better than other moles locally available--including the fine one at that Oaxacan restaurant in Santa Monica--that it is almost like seeing a Diego Rivera mural up close for the first time after years of seeing nothing but reproductions.
All the moles here are served with a piece or two of boiled chicken or pork, but really, all you need with these moles is a glass of horchata alongside, and a basket of hot tortillas to mop up the sauce.
3337 1/2 West 8th St., Los Angeles, (213) 427-0601. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. No alcohol. Cash only. Street parking only. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9-$12.