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Mole Minimalism 

Wednesday, May 24 2006
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Oaxacan bakeries and travel agencies and butcher shops line Pico Boulevard in the recently solidified Oaxacan neighborhood that has somehow begun to be called the Byzantine Latino District, as if the hundreds of Korean businesses in the area barely exist, and the native speakers of Zapotec don’t probably form at least a plurality. And of the many, many Oaxacan restaurants on the strip, perhaps the most accessible is Las 7 Regiones de Oaxaca, a shiny restaurant stuffed into an old storefront near Vermont, with splatter-painted walls and a glass-front refrigerator filled with Coronas, and a spicy, sweet smell that drifts out onto the sidewalk in invisible gusts of joy.

There are a few things you can expect at Oaxacan restaurants in Los Angeles, and Las 7 Regiones has them all. The tortilla chips will generally be the cheapest possible commercial chips available, but the dense, concentrated salsa served with them will be first rate. The horchata, the sugary rice-flour drink common to most Mexican restaurants, will be sweetened with vivid-pink cactus-fruit syrup and garnished with bits of pecans. There will be a television set in the corner tuned to a soccer game or a Univision variety show, which is inevitably drowned out by the jukebox. The bulletins advertising phone cards and shipping will outnumber the art posters at least two to one.

You can get tlayudas at Las 7 Regiones, of course, the tough, pizza-size flour tortillas smeared with beans, sprinkled with drifts of string cheese and garnished with a few balls of grilled Oaxacan chorizo, and there are broad quesadillas stuffed with shredded chicken or with cheese. The Oaxacan-style chicken soup with rice isn’t bad — strong stock, lots of meat. The big, wet banana-leaf-wrapped tamales sluiced with black mole are delicious. And Oaxacan cooks have their own take on barbacoa— a fiery, complex stew of goat — and Las 7 Regiones’ barbacoa is a powerful beast.

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Las 7 Regiones de Oaxaca may be neither the friendliest nor the best Oaxacan restaurant in town (that would be Antequera de Oaxaca and the original Guelaguetza respectively), but it may have the strongest sense of place, which is to say it is the most tethered to its neighborhood, the restaurant that most feels as if it would feel the most like home, if you know what I mean. Like the movie Crash or the early novels of Walter Mosely, lunch at Las 7 Regiones de Oaxaca is a pleasant way to experience somebody’s idea of the real L.A., except at the restaurant you get to power through a bowl of smooth green mole flavored with handfuls of minty herbs, a portion of sneakily spicy yellow mole or an elegant, sweet and sour estofadomole with chicken.

Los Angeles, of course, was one of the birthplaces of minimalist cuisine, the long-expired movement that featured tiny amounts of food on huge, empty plates. I remember a single sea scallop, garnished with a snip of chive, on an acre of Villeroy & Boch; a pinkie-size pheasant sausage centered on a giant Swid Powell platter; a wee grilled shrimp hidden under a gram and a half of frizzled leeks. St. Estephe’s chef, John Sedlar, the champion of culinary minimalism, began meals at his restaurant with beautiful, oversize plates empty but for a squiggle or two of chile sauce and precisely three kernels of fresh corn. It was breathtaking, really it was.

Still, Las 7 Regiones’ coloradito, its version of one of the famous seven moles of Oaxaca, may be one of the most minimal plates of them all, a big, oval restaurant platter holding a flat, shiny lake of mole, the ruddy, purply brown of a dying desert sunset, punctuated only by a small mound of rice at one end of the plate and by three low humps of pork meat, barely large enough to break the smooth plane of the sauce.

A plate of mole in other Oaxacan restaurants, at least the ones in Los Angeles, has always been more about the sauce than about the meat, but the coloradito at Las 7 Regiones, which is really a remarkable concoction — thick and dense and sweet-hot and unctuous, the product of hours of labor and probably 20-odd toasted seeds and chiles and spices — practically laughs at the meat, like a glorious Balenciega ballgown on the back of Paris Hilton. There is a basket of tortillas, of course, and you can order memelas, the sturdy homemade Oaxacan tortillas, for about a buck a pop, and the mole may be nothing but a memory, your plate polished clean, before you actually get around to trying the pork: not bad, really.

Look up at the television — Cruz Azul has just scored: “Goooooooooooaaaall.”

Las 7 Regiones de Oaxaca, 2648 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 385-7458. AE, D, MC, V. Beer and wine. Street parking only. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $14–$22. Recommended dishes: tlayudas; mole amarillo; mole verde barbacoa.

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