Antequera de Oaxaca is probably not the most serious Oaxacan restaurant in Los Angeles. Guelaguetza since its earliest days has been practically a museum of the cuisine, a reliquary of the region’s famous moles, fermented beverages and snacks. The Westside places Texate and Monte Alban take almost a folkloric approach, like the Oaxacan equivalent of the Indian restaurants that feature tabla music, urn collections and by-the-number Bengali menus. Oaxacan joints just south of Koreatown, such as Expresion Oaxaqueña, have their own kind of integrity, as ultracheap purveyors of empanadas and chorizo and clayudas (Oaxacan pizzas) — street food, right down to the piles of fried grasshoppers and the alarmingly big sandwiches called Torta Sexy.
You will find only a couple of different moles at Antequera de Oaxaca (although there is a tasty estofado, a yellowish mole flavored with olives, on Sundays), and the mole negro, the great dish of Oaxacan cuisine, seems thrown on almost as an afterthought. The horchata is good, fortified with raw pecans and chunks of ripe melon, but it is simple compared to the elaborate refrescos for which Oaxaca is renowned. Antequera de Oaxaca is a different kind of animal, a restaurant specializing in botanas — bar munchies, more or less, snacks and crunches and small plates of the sort that you might expect to see alongside a shot of mescal in an Oaxacan cantina, where they might even have been thrown in for free. It is sort of a weird concept, this menu of drinker’s food in a restaurant that doesn’t even serve alcohol, but somehow it works.
The restaurant inhabits a Melrose storefront that has been home to what seems like a dozen restaurants in the last several years, including a taquería, a Salvadoran pupuseria or two and a café specializing in Honduran sea-snail chowder, and they’ve all looked pretty much the same as this one: a plain space, taller than it is wide, embellished with travel posters, a few gaily painted artifacts, a rack of the Impulso de Oaxaca weekly, and a clientele that usually includes at least a few people from Paramount just down the street. The service is relaxed almost to the point of nonexistence — one gets the feeling that the waitress spends as much time before the stoves as she does out front — and the ceiling fans turn almost as slowly as the ones that always seemed to share the screen with Sydney Greenstreet. Antequera de Oaxaca is a sleepy place, less appropriate for quick lunches than for long, drowsy afternoons lubricated with Mexican soda pop, tough clayudas the size of truck tires, and what could be the best guacamole in Los Angeles — the kind of afternoons that can make you feel a little like Sydney Greenstreet yourself.
The basic unit of consumption at Antequera de Oaxaca is, as discussed, the botanas, assembled into a big combination plate for one, two or four people, constructed in a fashion you may not have seen since the last time you accompanied a 17-year-old boy to a salad bar: crunchy balls of chorizo balanced atop thin, grilled slices of dried beef, buttressed by professional-strength slabs of fried pork rind, flanked with a tangle of what on a similar Central American plate might be cabbage slaw but here turns out to be shredded string cheese. There is a Oaxacan-chile relleno on the plate, thin-walled, intensely spicy, stuffed with a sweet-sour chicken stew. Off to one side, a small molcajete brims with that guacamole, the chunky, rustic kind spiked with just enough ripe tomato to make it luscious. At the rear is a separate plate of chicken enchiladas drenched in a beautifully rich red mole sauce.
At the base of the botana plate, forming something like the solid foundation supporting a three-story house, are a half-dozen memelas, thick corn cakes with the heft of movie theater–size chocolate bars, indented and charred where the dough hits the hot metal of the grill, chewy as a medium-well steak. Other restaurants in town feature memelas, often fried, smeared with beans and drizzled with melted pork fat, but the memelas at Antequera de Oaxaca are creatures unto themselves, crisp on the outside and steamy within, perfect for transporting guacamole, a bit of meat and the restaurant’s superhot table salsa.
It’s an ideal lunch, the Number Two Botana, balanced and tasty, resonantly idiomatic, and only $14.95. The plate is enough for two or three hungry people. The pace is just right. The dining room is pleasant. All that’s missing this time of year is a supercooled bottle of Bohemia, poured into a mug so cold that a thin, crackling sheet of ice crystals begins to form on the surface. At Antequera de Oaxaca, that’s the part you have to supply yourself.
Antequera de Oaxaca, 5200 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, (323) 466-1101. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days, 9 a.m.–8:30 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. MC, V. Lunch for two, food only, $9–$15.