Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Tlayuda Is Not a Pizza, Oaxacan Cuisine in Salt Lake

“Mexican pizza,” she scribed

Pizza Hut in Mexico City danced before me. I dreamed them putting pickled jalapeños or even al pastor meat on a pie. Maybe she meant spreading the enchilada sauce on the bread before adding cheese, veggies, and meats. 

No. My thoughts were wrong. 

She was not talking about anything in Mexico. She was trying to make sense for Anglo Utah readers of a dish from Oaxaca called a tlayuda that is once again offered in Salt Lake. She is Heather King and she writes about food and other things for the Salt Lake Tribune, the state’s flagship newspaper. 

Tlayuda from La Oaxaqueña

King reviewed an old ethnic restaurant that has new offerings in Salt Lake when she found herself stumped for a comparison and inadvertently suggested Pizza Hut in Mexico. They do have pizzas in Mexico and not just at Pizza Hut, though that is not what she meant.

For years, Guanaco—a name that simply translates as someone from El Salvador—has been a tiny place on the corner of 500 East and 2700 South in South Salt Lake. As befitting its name, it offered pupusas and other Salvadoran offerings while more and more people besides those from the Central American Nation have come to love this stuffed, corn meal patty.  

As has happened before in Salt Lake Valley with Salvadoran food, someone from another country bought the restaurant and made changes. In this case the new owners are from Oaxaca, a rich and complex state in southern Mexico famous for its food and about which Diana Kennedy published a whole book. This family maintains the Café Guanaco, but around the corner, and to its side, on 27th South they opened La Oaxaqueña, a small store and Cafe. 

There, they serve up classic Oaxacan moles, that unique Mexican combination of different chiles, fruits, and spices. By now, most Anglos have at least heard of mole and maybe even tried some, especially the version from Puebla called simply mole poblano. People go “Oh, you mean that sauce with chocolate.”

Well Moles are far more complex than that and have widely varied lists of ingredients. Oaxaca, in particular is famous for its moles, which are not the same as the one from Puebla.

Enmoladas ad La Oaxaqueña

I tried the enmoladas, at La Oaxaqueña. These are shredded chicken rolled in a softened corn tortilla and covered with rich, complex, flavorful mole. It was dark, fruity, and spicy; it hinted at a whole array of peppers as well as spices. Frankly, this was one of the best moles I have had in Salt Lake Valley. 

But back to the pizza. My friend ordered one, a tlayuda. It is a large, plate-sized, crispy corn tortilla on which a slurry of ground black beans was first slathered, followed by different meats, cheese, and a topping of chopped cabbage and Mexican cream. 

It was wonderful. Each bite provided a combination of diverse flavors, from the crunchy, toasted corn flavor of the tortilla base, to the earthy and well seasoned black beans, the creaminess and texture of Oaxaca Cheese, the meats with their different textures and flavors, the freshness of the topping, and the light sourness of Mexican cream. Diverse, clean, and brilliant.  On top, if you wished, you could place their stinging and light hot sauce. 

The only thing the tlayuda shared with a pizza was that it was large and the base had toppings. Other than that, it is not at all like a pizza.

I would have compared it more to something we used to get once a week in the school cafeteria in El Paso, tapatías, more commonly known as chalupas or tostadas, a fried corn tortilla with refried beans, meat, cheese, and then chopped lettuce and tomatoes along with salsa. 

Surely, everyone has had one of these, whether from Taco Bell, a more Mexican restaurant, or at home. They are almost as mainstream Anglo fare as tacos and enchiladas have become. 

It can be difficult to write about foods unfamiliar to your audience, at least the readers you presume you have. You struggle to find comparisons that open doors while not closing too many. 

In this case, though she is far from alone in using the comparison, Heather King may have closed too many doors instead of opening them.  She simultaneously estranged Mexican food and obfuscated what a tlayuda is. 

She estranged in that she ignored all the knowledge that Anglo Americans have of what is now, perhaps, the most popular ethnic food in the US. Her writing disappeared the context of a tlayuda by hiding the tostada, and all the other types of tortillas with toppings, such as sopes or huaraches to name just two others. 

She obfuscated because unlike a pizza where they idea is to obtain a harmony of textures and flavors, in the balance between sauce, cheese, and meats, the tlayuda prefers flavors that are clearly distinct and clean. It is not the muddling of ingredients that comes in each bite, but the combination, the layers, of distinct flavors that play tag in your mouth. 

Molotes at La Oaxaqueña

La Oaxaqueña is wonderful and a great, if humble, addition to Salt Lake’s food scene. I am going to back to the store which every two weeks, on Friday, receives a shipment of foods from Oaxaca, since I want some of those amazing chiles Oaxaca has that are found no where else. 

I will also be back frequently to try its other foods, such as molotes (fried puffs of corn stuffed with potatoes and home-made chorizo) and each of the different moles. 

I will order more tlayudas too. 

But, a tlayuda is not a pizza, Heather, Mexican or otherwise. Leave that to Pizza Hut, Mexico City, or to that grand city’s version of the Vera Pizza Napoletana. 

The tlayuda fits in a whole tradition of corn tortillas with toppings that goes from Utah all the way into Central America. I am happy we have so many of them, now, in Salt Lake Valley. And, I am happy Oaxaqueña has come bringing us outstanding moles, tlayudas, and more. 

No comments:

Post a Comment