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Authentically, locally, Oaxacan

Times Staff Writer

THE grasshoppers aren’t on the menu, but they’re fabulous -- tiny, crunchy and flavorful, garnished with wedges of lime. With a Bohemia or Negra Modelo, the frosty mug rimmed with a salty spice mix (secret ingredient: crushed, dried mescal worms), it’s an auspicious start to lunch or dinner.

Perhaps you don’t get a kick out of munching on grasshoppers, or chapulines. No worries: The chips that appear as you’re seated, drizzled with the rich, smoky red coloradito mole and sprinkled with crumbled queso blanco, are almost as enticing.

Juquila, an 8-year-old Oaxacan spot in West L.A., has never been much to look at, but the food is terrific. The chef, Juana Hernandez, a native of Oaxaca, has been heading up the kitchen since the place opened.

Though the tacos, burritos and carne asada plates are delicious, the Oaxacan specialties are the real standouts.

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A great introduction is the botana Oaxaquena, a large platter for two that includes plump links of Oaxacan chorizo; tasajo (thinly sliced, grilled, salty beef round); cesina (thinly sliced pork rubbed with chile paste and grilled); two memelas con asiento, frijol y queso (thick, handmade corn tortillas spread with black beans and sprinkled with queso blanco); quesillo (soft, stringy Oaxacan cheese with a wonderful flavor); two chiles rellenos picadillos (filled with chicken, raisins and pine nuts); two tamales de mole, filled with chicken and sauced with velvety, rich black mole; and guacamole. Yes, there will be leftovers.

The restaurant has undergone a couple of redesigns in the last two years; it was remodeled three years ago and redecorated last December. Finally, it’s reasonably comfortable, unless you get stuck at one of the tables crammed in by the front window. The big tables in the center are better situated, or try to get a booth.

Travel posters adorn the walls; a shrine dedicated to Santa Juquila has a place of honor. Most important, to many of the customers, anyway, are the three strategically placed TV monitors that show Mexican soccer games or soap operas.

The place is usually packed with families who order cesina or tasajo plates with rice and black beans. Enmoladas are wonderful -- it’s a combo plate with three folded corn tortillas sauced with that terrific mole negro and sprinkled with queso blanco, plus tasajo, cesina, Oaxacan chorizo or chicken breast.

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All the moles, in fact, are wonderful. Coloradito de pollo is chicken sauced with that outstanding red mole first met drizzled on the chips. Fresh, tangy green mole is great with pork.

Or try the molcajete, a fabulous mini-version of the botana. Named for the vessel it’s served in, a plastic version of the lava-rock mortar used for grinding ingredients, it’s filled with grilled cesina, tasajo and Oaxacan chorizo, plus slices of nopales (cactus), tomato, oranges, grilled green onions, quesillo and lots of cilantro. The molcajete is not on the menu, although sometimes it’s listed on the specials board, but it’s usually available.

Guys often go for the mojarra frita -- a whole, deep-fried fish (usually tilapia). It’s impressive looking on the plate, crisp on the outside and moist on the inside, but not terribly flavorful, and a bit much for a person of normal appetite (served with rice, beans and salad). Specials are popular too, such as siete mares (seven seas), a big bowl of flavorful, red-orange fish broth, chockablock with clams, crab legs, shrimp and chunks of catfish.

But regulars also order off the menu. At lunch on a recent Sunday, one of two tough-looking, T-shirted guys in a booth happily slurped a dozen oysters with lime before attacking his main course.

On Sundays, when it’s always offered on special, pozole is a great choice. It’s an excellent rustic version, a large bowl, with toothsome chunks of pork and terrific broth; it comes with the traditional accompaniments of sliced radish, cabbage, limes, oregano, sliced jalapeno.

Barbacoa roja de chivo is always on the menu, which translates it as lamb, though it’s actually goat. It’s a big, soupy bowl of tender chunks of meat, with a lightly spicy red broth with plenty of body, subtly flavored with avocado leaves (the edible variety), and garnished with dried chiles and cilantro.

Desserts, which are brought in, are much less interesting. Nicuatole -- white corn custard -- sounds compelling, but it’s dull and chewy. Better satisfy a sweet tooth with horchata garnished with fruit or a licuado -- one of the marvelous juice drinks made from fresh fruit, lately available in pure-tasting cantaloupe or refreshing watermelon.

Service is friendly, though the management has a weird custom of presenting a check with only the total; nothing is itemized, so it’s impossible to know whether you’ve been properly charged.

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It’s a small price to pay, though, for some of the best Oaxacan food around.

*

Juquila

Location: 11619 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles; (310) 312-1079.

Price: Breakfast dishes, $4.50 to $7; tacos, tortas, burritos and appetizers, $1.50 to $7; lunch and dinner dishes, $6.50 to $9; botana Oaxaquena (serves two), $25; desserts, $1.50 to $2.

Best dishes: Cesina especial; enmoladas; mole negro; coloradito de pollo; botana Oaxaquena; molcajete; chapulines (grasshoppers); pozole.

Details: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily from 8 a.m. to midnight. Wine, beer and mescal. Visa and Mastercard. Street parking.


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