Clayuda – El Paladar Oaxaqueño food truck – West Los Angeles

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The timing was right when I passed the food truck that parks around the corner in the evenings, so I ordered a Clayuda to go. The truck is called El Paladar Oaxaqueño, and Clayudas (as they are spelled here in Los Angeles) are a distinctly Oaxacan dish… even though the spelling in Oaxaca is Tlayuda.

I’m certain I had a Tlayuda in the main square in Oaxaca several years ago, but my memory isn’t clear enough to make a proper comparison. I do remember it featured fresh guacamole and the Oaxacan string cheese, quesillo. This one had very earthy flavors, including black beans and cooked cabbage and tomato. I went with barbacoa as my meat choice, and that added another delicious earthy layer. Folded into a giant flour tortilla, it was so large that I didn’t even try to finish it – even in the privacy of home.

The real reason I didn’t finish it may be that I misjudged the power of the hot sauce that came with it. It was a cumulative effect, and by the end, I was balanced on that fine line between pleasure and pain.

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Rosca de los Reyes

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I was in a Mexican bakery in Los Angeles the other day, and wondered what the big round cake was. It was a Rosca de los Reyes, the traditional cake to celebrate Epiphany on January 6th. According to tradition, that’s the day the 3 wise men arrived in Bethlehem.

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Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Roscón de reyes or rosca de reyes (kings’ ring) is a Spanish and Latin American king’s cake pastry traditionally eaten to celebrate Epiphany.
Although the name indicates that it should be round, the “rosca de reyes” generally has an oval shape due to the need to make cakes larger than 30 cm across for larger parties. Recipes vary from country to country. For decoration, fig fruit, quinces, cherries or dried and candied fruits are used.
It is traditionally eaten on January 6, during the celebration of the “Día de Reyes” (literally “Kings’ Day”), which commemorates the arrival of the three Magi or Wise Men. In most of Spain, Spanish America, and sometimes, Hispanic communities in the United States, this is the day when children traditionally get presents, which are attributed to the Three Wise Men (and not Santa Claus or Father Christmas). In Mexico before children go to bed, they leave their shoes outside filled with hay or dried grass for the animals the Wise Men ride, along with a note.
The tradition of placing a trinket (figurine of the Christ Child) in the cake is very old. The baby Jesus hidden in the bread represents the flight of the Holy Family, fleeing from King Herod’s evil plan to kill all babies that could be the prophesied messiah. Whoever finds the baby Jesus figurine is blessed and must take the figurine to the nearest church on February 2, Candlemas Day (Día de la Candelaria). In the Mexican culture, this person also has to throw a party and provide tamales and atole to the guests. In US communities with large Mexican and Mexican-American populations such as Los Angeles, San Jose, and Chicago, the celebration includes the Mexican hominy stew pozole, which is made for all one’s neighbors.
In Spain, roscones bought in pastry shops have a small figure hidden inside, either of a baby Jesus or little toys for children, as well as the more traditional dry fava bean. Whoever finds the figure is crowned “king” or “queen” of the celebration, whereas whoever finds the bean has to pay for the next year’s roscón or Epiphany party.

n Argentina, there is a similar tradition of eating the rosca on January 6, although no figurine is included. A similar version of the pastry with whole eggs baked on top is served on Easter as rosca de Pascua.
In some places, the roscón de reyes is replaced by panettone, also baked with trinkets inside.
In France, a similar pastry known as a galette de rois (made with puff pastry and almond cream) is eaten on Epiphany, and in the US, the formerly French/Spanish city of New Orleans LA continues this tradition later in the year with their Kings’ Cake, a rich yeasted bread decorated with colored sugar and eaten before Mardi Gras.

Carolina’s and Comedor Guadalajara – Tex-Mex in Phoenix

I’ve had some great Mexican food in Phoenix, so on my recent visit, I thought I’d press my luck, and looked up the most highly-rated places on the Yelp website. My favorite place (which I won’t name here, to prevent any confusion) ranked with 4.3 stars out of 5, so I was excited to find two other places ranking 4.4 and 4.3.

This is a story of surprise and learning, so please don’t think it’s a negative review in any way.

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My sister and I drove across town from Scottsdale to somewhere south of downtown Phoenix to try Comedor Guadalajara. It’s a big, friendly place that feels as if it’s been there forever. The menu covered a wide range of meat and seafood dishes, and choosing was difficult. We started with ground beef and mashed potato tacos, which was our first surprise. I’ve become a fan of crispy mashed potato tacos in Los Angeles, but somehow, the addition of ground meat made them taste a little more like something my mother might have made (she was not Mexican.) They were good, but didn’t have the toasty, starchy edge I was expecting.

As a main course, I ordered the camarones endiablados, a spicy shrimp dish I’ve had many times in Mexico and Los Angeles. It was nicely presented, with rice and refried beans, and delivered all the chipotle zing that the menu promised… except that it tasted just like barbecue sauce. Leigh ordered chicken enchiladas that were also nicely presented, but in a creamier sauce than expected. Everything was tasty, but we’ve never been served dishes like these in Mexico or Los Angeles. We realized we were eating something similar, but not quite like Mexican food.

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The next day, we went to another famous place. For years, my sister has told me about the buttered tortillas at Carolina’s, which is located just a few blocks from Comedor Guadalajara. They turned out to be large flour tortillas, slathered with butter, and folded into an intense, comfort-food ball that will probably be the subject of dreams and fantasies until the next time I’m in Phoenix.The location, however, was a surprise. Leigh had never actually been to Carolina’s, and the free-for-all of the busy down-scale room turned out to be a lot of fun.

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The menu was surprisingly limited, with burritos, chimichangas (deep-fried burritos, I was told) and enchiladas being the basic fare. I went for the enchiladas, and Leigh had the chorizo and potato burrito. My enchiladas came in a plastic container, and were covered in a deep brown sauce, melted orange cheese and shredded lettuce. Served with refried beans and rice, they were tasty, but again, unlike anything I’ve had in Mexico or Los Angeles. Leigh’s burrito, however, was wonderful! I’m sure I’ll be going back to Carolina’s.

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We spoke with a well-known Mexican chef the following day, asking him just what it was that we had eaten. He was quick to point out (and I agree 100%) that these are good restaurants, but it really isn’t Mexican food, but rather some form of Tex-Mex. Both places have been around for years, and were full of happy diners, so we came away feeling we had learned something valuable.

Los Portales – Culiacán – Tampiqueña

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It was a hot afternoon, and Los Portales felt like an oasis. Not a cool oasis, as the air conditioning consisted of gently blowing fans in an open courtyard, but rather a welcoming, relaxing place to recover from a hard morning of tourism, and to have a lovely meal. Located in an old building in the Centro Histórico, across from the cathedral, the location was perfect.

I was in the mood for meat, so I ordered the Tampiqueña, a common dish in upscale Mexican restaurants that can take many forms, in my experience. Here, it was a lovely piece of thin-cut marinated steak, cooked medium, with all the expected accompaniments… a grilled green onion, guacamole, refried beans with crumbled cheese, and a baked potato. I couldn’t have been happier.

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Colonia Taco Lounge – La Puente, CA – Really Amazing Tacos

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It was a nice day for a drive, so I persuaded my friend Leili to make the trip to La Puente for what I promised would be some of the best tacos in Southern California… We weren’t disappointed. Forewarned that it was basically a bar that served tacos, we weren’t surprised to find a big, sparsely decorated room with the menu choices written on a blackboard. And we felt immediately at home by the friendly service.

These are not your abuelita’s tacos. I started with the duck taco – how can you beat duck confit with a smoky guacamole? The full, rich flavor of the duck was remarkable, beautifully enhanced by the complex tastes hidden in the sauce, and I was convinced it would be my favorite of the day. Leili was craving the potato tacos – believe it or not, there were 2 choices. One crispy with mashed potatoes, rajas and crema, and the other stacked with layers of crisply fried potato slices and cheese.

We kept ordering until we couldn’t fit another taco into our mouths. We didn’t try all of the 15 tacos on the menu, but we came embarrassingly close. I decided my favorites were the braised beef and the deep fried cauliflower (both pictured here), and Leili stayed with her original instincts, and voted for the crispy mashed potato taco.

We finished off with bunuelos – lightly toasted tortillas dredged in sugar and cinnamon – and coffee, and chatted well into the afternoon, celebrating that great feeling of having made a great food discovey.

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Here’s the address: 13030 E. Valley Blvd., La Puente, (626) 363-4691

Tacos Punta Cabras – Scallop Tacos

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With the grandfathered exception of The Border Grill, I never expected to find serious tacos in Santa Monica. Out for a walk on Santa Monica Boulevard, though, I had a feeling about this small, casual spot, and decided to give it a try. It also helped that I was hungry at the time.

The menu is very specialized, in the form of an order sheet with boxes to check. Tacos are limited to fish, scallop, shrimp and tofu. There are also seafood cocktails and tostadas. And that’s kind of it. They give special consideration to gluten and nut allergies.

I went for a fish taco and a scallop taco. There were no surprises when they arrived, basically baja style tacos with fried fish and scallops, shredded cabbage and a dash of crema on soft tortillas. The surprise came when I took my first bite. Perfectly cooked, beautifully balanced flavors and wonderful textures, these aren’t the quick comfort food we’ve come to expect of tacos…

This is serious food!

Here’s the address: 2311 Santa Monica Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90404
Phone: (310) 917-2244