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With the return of Poncho’s Tlayuda, a master is back in action

Closeup of a tortilla covered with meat, cheese and cabbage on top of a grill.
Tlayuda con tres carnes is grilled over mesquite at Poncho’s Tlayudas.
(Paul Argumedo / For The Times)
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The first time I had the namesake dish from Poncho’s Tlayudas was at Smorgasburg L.A., on a Sunday soon after I began working for The Times in late 2018. What I recall most vividly from that morning was the moronga — the blood sausage that Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez makes based on a recipe taught to him as a wedding present by the father of his wife and business partner, Odilia Romero.

Its flavors are a singular swirl: porky, oniony and minty, with a low thrum of chile heat. A few minutes on the grill crisps the casing, but the interior is multi-textured, like pudding with a pleasant graininess. I’d never had anything like it before.

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At Smorgasburg, the corn tortillas that Martinez and Romero used for tlayudas were deep blue, somewhere between navy and a purplish indigo. They were smaller than the large, sunny-colored ones they sourced for their mainstay weekly pop-up on Friday nights in South L.A.. I learned later that the couple works with one family in Oaxaca to supply the tortillas, though that family has branches throughout the region working with different farmers.

Martinez wants the tlayudas he serves to taste like the ones he grew up eating in Oaxaca’s Central Valleys, but it’s also important to him and Romero that they help sustain what they refer to as the “local corn economy” there.

A man flips food on a grill
Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez grilling tlayudas.
(Paul Argumedo / For The Times)

Romero was working the grill on that day of my first visit, and she folded the tlayuda in half on the grate over mesquite embers after it was pliable but also crisp. Most Oaxacan restaurants in Los Angeles serve them open-faced; I hadn’t been handed a tlayuda creased down the middle since my one trip to Oaxaca a decade earlier. It was wonderful, and I wondered why the line for Poncho’s Tlayudas wasn’t trailing as long as the endless queue for barbecue a few rows away.

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As deep of a first impression as it left, I’d learn that the tlayudas taste even better — more richly brimming with garlicky refritos, melting quesillo, crumbled chorizo and shredded cabbage — at the Poncho’s Tlayudas home base in South L.A.. The weekly events disappeared for most of the pandemic, in part because early in 2020 the pipeline for the essential Oaxacan ingredients temporarily dried up. But they resumed regularly in early March.

What’s it like to have Poncho’s Tlayudas back in action? That’s the subject of this week’s review.

Speaking of reviews: I’ll be on hiatus for a few weeks, celebrating a milestone birthday with some time off. The Tasting Notes newsletter won’t be going anywhere, though: A few Food team colleagues will be jumping in with some fun dispatches. (Thanks, y’all!) I’ll resume near the end of May.

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— With Eid al-Fitr nearing, marking the end of Ramadan, Lucas Kwan Peterson writes about a now-annual tradition at Aleppo Kitchen in Anaheim’s Little Arabia: the iftar buffet.

— In her new column, “What to eat now,” Jenn Harris recommends four places and what to order there — among the dishes, the caviar-covered tamal at Ray Garcia’s Asterid at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

— Echo Park’s bar-arcade Button Mash is back, and it has teamed with Tacos 1986, which is serving its signature menu of tacos, mulitas, vampiros and quesadillas. Stephanie Breijo has the report.

— Stephanie also has the details on Kodo, an izakaya from David Wynn of Hollywood’s Kensho that’s newly opened in the Arts District, and other noteworthy news of the week.

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Closeup of a rectangular piece of food on a blue plate against a black background.
Tamal with caviar from Asterid.
(Jim Sullivan)
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