Seven years ago, when the first Tlapazola Grill opened on the site of a former Santa Monica New Age coffee shop in Santa Monica, Oaxacan food was as exotic in Los Angeles as the cooking of northern Sumatra; it was a faraway cuisine, one of rumor and traveler’s legend, its presence unknown except at pulque-soaked southside fiestas thrown by members of the rather large local Oaxacan community. Oaxacan restaurants did not then dot every thoroughfare of West Los Angeles; Oaxacan cookbooks were not yet thick on the ground; half the people you know were not showing you color photographs of trips to Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead. The word clayudas seemed to refer to ethnic cooking pots rather than handmade Oaxacan tortillas the size of manhole covers, and mole, as far as any of us knew, came in one color: black.
Tlapazola‘s black mole was a revelation to Los Angeles, a thick, molten substance alive with the flavors of two dozen herbs, innumerable toasted chiles and pungent thickeners ranging from unsweetened chocolate to burnt bread, a sauce whose black complexities kept shifting around the limits of sensual perception like planes of light in a Velasquez painting. It was magic, this mole, quite unlike anything most of us had ever tasted. (Mole was common enough, but almost all of it came in squishy packets imported from Puebla, decent stuff in its way but not even a shadow of the real thing.) It was pretty much the only truly Oaxacan dish on Tlapazola’s menu of professionally prepared carne asada plates, lamb barbacoa and grilled fish, but it seemed to be enough.
It wasn‘t. Emboldened by Tlapazola’s success, waves of other restaurants — Texate, El Sazon, Monte Alban, the two Guelaguetzas — opened with fully Oaxacan menus, and Oaxacan food became chic. Tlapazola faded, then closed, and its two chefs went back to high-level salaried restaurant work, one to run the kitchen at a local country club; the other to become a chef at Rockenwagner. And even with the wash of fragrant mole verde, of mild amarillo, of spicy coloradito, Los Angeles was poorer for the want of Tlapazola‘s famous mole negro.
But you can’t keep a good restaurant down. Tlapazola Grill reopened a couple of months ago, reincarnated in a small, sleek space next to a Japanese noodle shop in a Westside mini-mall, a few tables, a few carvings, a few surreal paintings on the wall that seem designed to illustrate some Oaxacan translation of Freud. The refrigerator bulges with all manner of Mexican soft drinks, from the apple-flavored Sidral to grapefruit-flavored Piñafiel, though no beer as yet.
Tlapazola is the kind of Mexican restaurant where you could imagine taking a business meeting, a spare dining room with clean, professional Mexican cooking, almost elegant, with a dash of funky soul and most of the chefly precision of restaurants that charge $40 a head. This is a place where you are more likely to order the grilled trout with green rice than to order a chicken burrito.
You probably know the drill: quesadillas stuffed with spinach and roasted garlic; fresh-tasting chiles rellenos stuffed with shrimp; salmon with a sauce of ground pumpkin seeds; crisply fried chicken flautas; enchiladas glazed with both the house‘s tart tomatillo salsa and a musky puree of mild guajillo chiles. The carne asada, cooked rare if you want it, has a pleasant citrusy tang; long-stewed lamb barbacoa comes alive with a dash of the smoky house salsa. I am particularly fond of a juicy grilled pork loin, drizzled with a mild, uncomplicated mole amarillo, that nestles into a mound of vividly green herbed rice, a dish you might expect to be the specialty of a fancy Oaxaca hotel. Even the shrimp fajita plate is good — just ask my mother-in-law.
Still, you will undoubtedly order the mole negro — and why shouldn’t you? Murky, viscous, odiferous, heaving levels of mephitic complexity from its chocolate-smeared depths, Tlapazola‘s mole is pure evil on a plate, and just the thing with a cold one on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
11676 Gateway Blvd., (310) 477-1577. Open Tues.– Thurs. noon –10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Sun. noon–10 p.m. No alcohol (yet). Lot parking. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $18–$30. MC, V. Recommended dishes: chile relleno; chicken in mole negro; grilled pork loin with yellow mole and green rice.