Photo by Anne FishbeinTHE WESTSIDE, OR AT LEAST THE CENTINELA corridor, has so many decent Oaxacan restaurants that the cuisine has become something of a Los Angeles tourist attraction, a new, clean, ineffably exotic kind of cooking that happens to have popped up in Studioland rather than somewhere down the 10, a cuisine unusual enough in the United States to have attracted national attention, yet centered five minutes from Brentwood.
But even in a neighborhood well-furnished with Oaxacan cafés, Oaxacan bakeries, and butcher shops that sell fairly specialized Oaxacan cuts of meat, El Sazón Oaxaqueño has become an institution in just a few years, a spare, tidy restaurant tucked in near a video store and a laundromat in a Westside mini-mall, overwhelming its tiny parking lot. The place is filled in the morning with locals scarfing coffee and sugar-crusted rolls before work, enfrijoladas and vast empanadas at lunch, and broad, sparsely garnished clayudas, Oaxacan pizzas, in the late afternoon. The kitchen hums under an elaborate tile hut built within the restaurant. A bakery area up front attracts a crowd of its own.
The restaurant is missing a few of the touches many of us have grown to expect from our local Oaxacan cafés: Chips are served with spicy tomato salsa instead of the small bowls of exotic mole you can find at some other restaurants, and the music that blares from the stereo includes more Ricky Martin songs than chipper festival music. Where some places serve a whole range of oozy, fermented homemade Oaxacan beverages, El Sazón has only one Oaxacan version of horchata, a smooth, cinnamon-scented rice drink garnished with chopped pecans and a scant ounce of red syrup. Chile-rubbed fried crickets are nowhere to be found. And of the seven classic moles, the elaborate, multispiced sauces that make up the soul of Oaxacan cuisine, here you will find only two.
Still, where many of the other Oaxacan places in town interpret mole as a mandate to serve fairly incidental segments of reheated chicken (or boiled pork spine) wallowing in great, sopping plates of sauce, the chicken at El Sazón is fresh, full of juice, tending toward old-bird chewiness rather than dissolving into mush under your fork, and the pork spine, nobody's favorite cut, is nowhere to be seen.
Oaxaca's roster of antojitos, masa-based snacks, is unique in Mexico, I think, and El Sazón's are among the best in town: the sweet, soft mole-stuffed tamales steamed in banana leaves; the bean-smeared tortillas called enfrijoladas; even the crisp little chicken taquitos. Memelas, often constituted as thick, bean-smeared tortillas, more closely resemble saucer-shaped sopes here, and are similarly filled with beans, cheese and meat. First among these snacks is the clayuda, a sort of Oaxacan tostada dotted with lettuce, crumbles of fresh, wet cheese and what the menu accurately identifies as “pork fat flavored bean puree,” and also a handful of meat, perhaps sweet, marble-size Oaxacan chorizo sausages or the pleasantly gamy house-dried pork known as cecina. Clayudas are enormous things, built up on griddle-baked tortillas as big as manhole covers, and are basically as hard to cut as rawhide. A Oaxacan Emily Post may well recommend eating clayudas with knife and fork, but you will eventually tear the thing apart with your hands, roll the scraps into leathery tubes, and chaw. (Empanadas, filled with the restaurant's mild, cumin-scented mole amarillo, thickened with masa, which tastes like an Olympian version of the enchilada sauce you might find in a Swanson's Hungry Man dinner, are more or less clayudas folded into rough half-moon shapes.)
The best-known Oaxacan specialty is probably mole negro, as interpreted in half the Mexican restaurants in the world, and El Sazón's version of the famous sauce is impeccable, a thick, oily substance, almost blue-black in hue, slightly sweetened and vaguely hot, vibrating with drawersful of toasted spice. The ruddy, delicate broth that sauces the barbacoa de chivo is finer still, scented with the subtle licorice taste of toasted avocado leaves and the funky essence of stewed kid — this is as refined a goat dish as you are ever going to see in a Mexican restaurant. But it is the extravagantly hot coloradito de pollo that is El Sazón's best dish, a brick-red sauce that almost sings with roasted chiles, with sautéed spices, with ground, charred bread. Glorious.
12131 Washington Place; (310) 391-4721. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $9$15. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only. Recommended dishes: clayudas; tamal de mole; coloradito de pollo.