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Is L.A. becoming a tlayuda desert? How COVID-19 is causing a shortage of Oaxacan ingredients

An array of Oaxacan ingredients at Madre Oaxacan Restaurant and Mezcaleria in Torrance, including the hard-to-find white cheese called quesillo.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Tuesday mornings used to be hectic for Ivan Vasquez, the owner of Madre, the sleek Oaxacan restaurant and bar with locations in Torrance and Palms.

On those mornings, sometimes as early as 2 a.m., a truck hauling hundreds of pounds of Oaxacan ingredients — shrink-wrapped balls of the stretchy white cheese called quesillo; sacks of chiles de agua; stacks of the thin, crisp, hubcap-sized tortillas called tlayudas — were unloaded at a designated drop-off point near his restaurants.

Those deliveries disappeared abruptly last month.

“I had to call my suppliers in Oaxaca and tell them: ‘I’m not buying anything because my two dining rooms are closed,’” he said.

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Before the shutdown, Vasquez was spending about $2,525 on Oaxacan ingredients and delivery fees every week. With business down to a trickle — Vasquez estimates lunch and dinner orders at his restaurants have dropped by 90% — he is now spending less than half what he used to on Oaxacan ingredients.

Los Angeles is home to the largest number of Oaxacan restaurants and markets outside of Mexico; many of these stake their reputations on the ingredients and products they source directly from Oaxacan purveyors.

Ivan Vasquez at Madre in Torrance.
Ivan Vasquez, photographed at Madre in Torrance, says business at his two restaurants has dropped by as much as 90%. He’s having trouble importing Oaxacan ingredients.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Over the years, restaurateurs like Vasquez have developed a complicated supply chain involving multiple handlers to shuttle Oaxacan ingredients from southern Mexico to Southern California.

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Now, with L.A. restaurants purchasing fewer Oaxacan ingredients, and COVID-19-related travel restrictions making it harder for purveyors to send products north of the border, the supply chain that business owners have pieced together over the years is falling apart, making it harder for L.A. restaurants to serve essential Oaxacan dishes like tlayudas, moles and chapulines.

Tlayudas recently disappeared from the menu at Poncho’s Tlayudas, the popular South L.A. stand operated by Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez and his wife, Odilia Romero.

The family he works with to source tlayudas has temporarily shut down its tlayuda-making operation on the outskirts of Oaxaca City due to stay-home restrictions, he said.

“When we put up an Instagram post letting people know we ran out of tlayudas, we got a lot of calls from people telling me, ‘Poncho, here we have some tlayudas. Here is some quesillo.’ But those products are not the same as the ones we were using,” he said. “I just didn’t feel right selling it.”

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Alfonso "Poncho" Martinez at his home in Los Angeles.
Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez at his home in Los Angeles. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, he has not been able to procure enough tlayudas to sell to customers.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Martinez is not making his family’s popular moronga blood sausage either, or any meats; the butcher shop he buys from is also temporarily shuttered.

Ivan Vasquez is similarly fastidious about the quality and provenance of the Oaxacan ingredients used in his restaurants.

Before the pandemic made travel difficult, Vasquez, a native of Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales region, traveled regularly to visit family and build relationships with vendors.

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“We have a dedicated person for the chiles de agua, a dedicated person for our spices, and a dedicated tlayudera that was producing about 400 tlayudas a week for us,” he said.

He tried six or seven different producers before settling on a quesillo supplier from the town of Etla, Oaxaca, which is known for its excellent cheese makers. Until recently, he had a weekly standing order for more than 220 pounds of cheese.

Alfonso "Poncho" Martinez of Poncho's Tlayudas demonstrates making a black bean tamale.
Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez of Poncho’s Tlayudas demonstrates making a black bean tamale. Martinez has been selling Oaxacan tamales in lieu of tlyaudas during the COVID-19 shutdown.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Vasquez says the purchase orders at his two restaurants affect the livelihoods of at least 10 vendors and handlers in Mexico.

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“This is affecting a whole chain of people working with us,” he said.

“My particular chain was helping provide jobs all the way from Oaxaca to Tijuana to L.A.”

Vasquez works closely with his mother and sister in Oaxaca, who coordinate with vendors and arrange for the products to be shipped from Oaxaca City to Tijuana via air freight.

When the merchandise arrives in Tijuana, a small team of delivery drivers shuttles the merchandise safely across the border. They used to drop off products in Orange County, South L.A. and at Expresion Oaxaqueña, the long-running Oaxacan restaurant-market near Pico Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue, where restaurant and market owners congregate early on Tuesdays to pick up their orders.

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“I’ve met restaurant owners who come from as far away as Seattle and Portland to pick up their merchandise in that parking lot,” Vasquez said.

Banana leaf-wrapped Oaxacan tamales from Poncho's Tlayudas in South Los Angeles.
Banana leaf-wrapped Oaxacan tamales from Poncho’s Tlayudas in South Los Angeles.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Zeferino Garcia, who owns Expresion Oaxaqueña and three other Oaxacan markets in Los Angeles, said that the biggest challenge he’s run up against is getting Oaxacan ingredients shipped via air to the border.

“There are long wait times right now because air freight is being prioritized for things like medicine,” he said.

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To get tlayudas, chiles de agua, chapulines, moles and quesillo to Los Angeles, Garcia is paying for his merchandise to be shipped to Mexico City via ground transport, where it’s put on a flight to Tijuana. The route is more expensive, but it’s the only way he can guarantee his merchandise makes it to Tijuana, where a courier service conveys it to Los Angeles.

Garcia is no longer able to import harder-to-find Oaxacan products such as frijoles criollos and regional breads from Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez mountain range that are normally in stock at his markets, which include Mercado Benito Juarez in Koreatown and two locations of La Mayordomia.

“The Sierra Juarez is completely shut down right now. Products can’t come in or out of there,” he said.

For Ivan Vasquez, getting quesillo to L.A. has proved the biggest challenge.

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A tlayuda at one of the locations of La Mayordomía, the Oaxacan market owned and operated by Zeferino Garcia and his family. Garcia says it's proven challenging to get basic Oaxacan ingredients to Los Angeles.
A tlayuda at one of the locations of La Mayordomía, the Oaxacan market owned and operated by Zeferino Garcia and his family. Garcia says it’s proven challenging to get basic Oaxacan ingredients to Los Angeles.
(Amy Scattergood / Los Angeles Times )

On March 21, the U.S. and Mexico began restricting nonessential travel along the border. Although commercial shipments are still flowing back and forth, Vasquez says border inspections have gotten tougher.

Inspectors have twice now thrown out parcels of quesillo, which inspires scrutiny because it’s unlabeled. They have also thrown out chile peppers that are not completely green, Vasquez said.

Like Martinez, Vasquez says that substituting quintessential ingredients like tlayudas and quesillos would be missing the point of traditional Oaxacan cooking.

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“One of my missions is to keep Oaxacan food flavors as they should be. Otherwise, they will be lost for younger generations,” he said.

“I’m not sure you can really appreciate those ancestral recipes if you’re not using the right ingredients.”

For Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez, the point of using Oaxacan ingredients is not only the flavor, but the connection they represent to his home state.

“We work directly with communities in Oaxaca. So we can trust that when we place an order we know it will be done in a certain amount of days and we know the product will be fresh,” he said.

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“As you can see, the two economies are closely tied. There is a connection between us that we don’t want to break.”


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