El Tejado, a new restaurant specializing in Oaxacan cuisine, does its best to decode the foreign language of Southern Mexican food. But even with a bilingual menu, a gringo can get tongue-tied navigating unusual listings such as grilled cactus, Mexican noodles and a dish known colloquially as “It Kills Mothers-in-Law.” Anyone not fluent in the delicacies of Oaxaca, one of the southernmost Mexican states, is bound to put her foot in her mouth—or, if not her foot, something else that doesn’t taste particularly good.
Take, for example, chabelas mata suegras, the mother-in-law killer. The handmade tortilla with spicy salsa, beans and melted cheese makes a terrible first impression for the fledgling restaurant. The spongy disc offers little to break the purple-brown monotony of pureéd beans or to mitigate the smoky, heat of invisible pepper. The house tlayuda, a tortilla dish often called Oaxacan pizza and topped with beans, a dry saddle of flank steak and a sprinkling of a pale raw cabbage, makes a similarly disappointing salvo.
Yes, it’s fair to say we got off to a rough start at El Tejado.
But something told us to stick with it, to keep muddling through the new vocabulary. Maybe it was the zesty salsa, so varied in thickness from visit to visit that it had to be homemade. Or the guacamole, a piquant version of the standard avocado dip. Or the lime wedges perched festively on the water glasses.
Maybe it was the oddly soothing music videos of MTV España projected bigger than life on the wall. Or the service, so friendly and tolerant as we stammered out our questions about Oaxacan food and enacted charades to ask for a spoon, a side plate and the check.
Yes, along the way, we ate some unappealing stuff. But with the persistence of students replaying their Berlitz tapes despite repeatedly butchering a new language, we returned to El Tejado five times for lunch over two weeks to explore the especialidades Oaxaqueñas. The rewards were a pidgin familiarity with Oaxacan food and—to our surprise and delight—a great new Mexican dining option.
Ivette and Sergio Vutron opened El Tejado (pronounced “El Tay-hahdo” and translated as “the tile roof”) last fall in the charisma-free location of a bygone Chinese restaurant. In this shotgun strip-mall space covered by a corrugated metal roof, hacienda meets hotel lounge. Colorful Mexicana and warm murals cover the walls, while incongruous shiny, black chairs often sit empty in the pink-and-blue glow of neon strip lights. At any given minute, telenovelas or game shows play on the back wall of the restaurant as families play eight ball at the pool tables. (By 10 p.m. on a recent Saturday, the ambiance had morphed from family-friendly to late-night bar, shedding some light on the ominous signs in the bathrooms that read “No! Drogas!”)
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, pots filled with tomatoes and peppers simmer on a knee-high stove, and Elizabet Hernandez grinds cacao, chilies, raisins, cumin, sesame seeds, peppers, crackers, almonds, cloves and tortillas to make the mole.
The traditional sauce, which gives Oaxaca the moniker Land of the Seven Moles, plays a starring—and stirring—role in the romantic Mexican film Like Water for Chocolate. While four moles appear on the menu—red, yellow, green and black—it is the black mole (mole negro) that steals the show at El Tejado. Spicy and sweet, with strong flavors of chocolate and undertones of apple and brown sugar, mole negro accompanies everything from chicken breasts and grilled beef to tamales and tortillas. It upstages virtually everything it touches.
“My restaurant is not Tex-Mex,” says Ivette Vutron, a Oaxacan native who moved here eight years ago after studying journalism in Mexico City. “This is the real, real flavor of Mexico.” The Vutrons also own La Guelaguetza, the neighboring grocery store crammed with south-of-the-border sundries and named for the traditional Oaxacan festival celebrating the goddess of corn.
And there is indeed cause for celebrating corn at El Tejado—in the form of Oaxacan tamales. The unexpectedly fluffy cornmeal in the tamales Oaxaqueños bears little resemblance to the gluey roll-ups that so often masquerade as the traditional dish. The combination of pulled pork, cornmeal and red and black moles is exotic yet familiar, like a Mexican interpretation of barbecue and corncakes.
Oaxacan specialties occupy one sheet of the seven-page menu, the rest of which carries the more familiar idioms of Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants, like quesadillas, tortas, burritos and tacos. Mole negro also appears on the carne asada, which plates an unusually tender cut of grilled, marinated rib eye with a crisp, fresh side of shredded romaine lettuce. Enchiladas burst with chicken, under a house-made sauce that rivals the mole for depth of flavor but trades sweetness for heat and retains more of the texture of pureéd tomatoes than many typical red sauces. The Fajita Tejado offers a generous and colorful spread of grilled beef, chicken, pork and shrimp with sautéed peppers, onions and cactus. The cayenne-flecked shrimp are beautifully butterflied, but the thin beef strips are grilled well beyond medium-rare and lack both flavor and juice. Anyone who can muster the linguistics might consider asking for a full carne asada steak, rather than the strips.
Meanwhile, anyone expecting a comically quilled cactus kebab will be disappointed by a humble succulent, reminiscent of grilled bell pepper. But still, the oddity of the desert edible is slightly thrilling, and anyone who wants to experiment with cactus at home can pick up a pound or so of nopal in the produce section at La Guelaguetza.
One of the most delightful surprises at El Tejado is the caldo de fideo, an ever-changing noodle soup. On our third visit, the soup arrived as an appetizer, unsolicited, despite the fact that we ordered posole (soup of pork and hominy) for an entrée. After several attempts to understand why, we were told that, at least for the winter, everyone gets free soup. On one visit, the soup came with very fine, short noodles. Another time, the bowl brimmed with vegetables and elbow macaroni. In both cases, the tomato-tinged broth, steaming with flavors that recalled the complex taste of the mole, was a welcome elixir on a winter day. Sadly, just as we came to expect the soothing bowls of broth, on a subsequent visit, no soup arrived.
For people who want predictability when they dine out, El Tejado may not be the place. Things seem to change a lot. Free soup comes and goes. Salsa is thick, salsa is thin. The weekend music schedule ebbs and flows, from DJ to live band and back to MTV España.
For people who need a margarita with their Mexican food, El Tejado is not the place. The restaurant has a permit for beer but not liquor.
And for people who want to conduct their dining out in English only, El Tejado is not the place. While the Vutrons speak beautifully, fluency among the staff varies widely.
But for people looking for something a little different, who want to throw some cactus into the mix, sip it with tamarind-flavored water and savor the mystery of a few foreign words, El Tejado offers a crash course in a rich and refreshing new language.
El Tejado is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
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