Oaxacan tlayudas inspire a particular response, best summed up by OC Weeklyeditor and “¡Ask a Mexican!” columnist, Gustavo Arellano who describes it in one word, all caps: “GOOD.” Impossibly thinner than a tostada and crunchy like a cracker on the edges but a bit chewy in the middle, loaded with a mess of toppings, some Mexican restaurants liken the tlayuda to Oaxacan-style pizza.
My first taste of a tlayuda took place in Los Angeles at the Oaxacan family-owned food mecca, Guelaguetza. Located on the outskirts of Korea Town, I didn’t expect to drink bracingly smooth mezcal in the middle of the day or find a new food crush in a dish bigger than my head. The server brought the massive tlayuda to our table and we couldn’t stop gawking at its girth—a disk of thin masa stretched to the edges of the platter, topped with silky smooth bean paste, crumbled queso fresco, cabbage, three kinds of meat and strips of Oaxacan cheese. Next, we couldn’t decide how to best tackle eating it, finally deciding we would break off hunks of it like one breaks off chocolate bark. Every bite seemed like a new discovery because none of us save one had ever tried a tlayuda before. After that lunch, I bugged family in northern Mexico if they’d ever eaten one, asked shoppers at our neighborhood store in East Oakland that stocks fresh epazote and nopal (cactus paddle) four ways (with thorns, without, chopped and canned) but no one I spoke with had tried it.
Mexican food cookbook author and cooking instructor Nancy Zaslavsky describes this famous Oaxacan dish as “slightly crunchy and chewy at the same time,” having been twice-cooked on a comal clay cooking disk set over wood and usually around 14 to 18 inches wide. More often than not, tlayuda start with traditional toppings Zaslavsky said in Oaxaca consist of asiento (rendered pork lard), black bean paste,and sometimes shredded quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese), tomato slices, onion, lettuce or shredded cabbageand either grilled tasajo (beef) or cecina (pork). Tasajo and cecina are kind of the pepperoni and sausage of the tlayuda world—they’re classic toppings. Becerra noted how they make their tlayuda at Monte Alban, “We spread beans and cheese and then put the tlayuda in the clay again so it will be crispy.” It’s little wonder if you’ve not yet tried tlayuda unless you’re from Oaxaca, have traveled there, or have been introduced to this iconic Oaxacan street food classic on a restaurant menu.
Times are changing and the tlayuda is about to take off. As more opportunities are cropping up to taste regional Mexican cuisine in the U.S., the tlayuda’s time has come as it’s cropping up on restaurant menus. While some restaurants are sticking to the traditional toppings, others are dramatically departing from them. Chef-owners Diego Galicia and Rico Torres at Restaurant Mixtli in San Antonio, Texas change their menu every 45 days to better represent regional Mexican cuisine in a progressive way. Earlier this year on their street foods menu, they served a mini tlayuda topped with chile-rubbed beef carpaccio, red wine aioli, aged chilmole, Oaxaca cheese, and greens finished with a cacao and smoky chile powder. At Michelin-rated Mexique in Chicago, Chef Carlos Gayetan topped their tlayudas with duck leg carnitas and mole. Meanwhile, Chef Rick Bayless at Leña Brava, scaled down the typically oversized tortilla for appetizer-sized tlayuditas topped with West Coast sea urchin, avocado-yuzu sauce, roasted tangerine, hibiscus flower petals, and toasted black sesame.
If you’re an avid eater of Mexican food, are you ready to meet your new favorite slice of Mexican cuisine? Hatch a plan to head to Oaxaca but if you can’t make it there this year, read on for a road map of where to taste tlayudas around the U.S.
1. El Mercado Modern Cuisine, Santa Ana
The traditional tlayuda comes served with bean puree, Oaxacan cheese, avocado puree and a dollop of jocoque (a crema that’s a bit like a cross between Greek yogurt and salty sour cream). You can add chorizo or steak.
2. Monte Alban, Los Angeles
Photo courtesy of Monte Alban
In West Los Angeles at Monte Alban, their 11-inch tlayuda starts with a toasted corn tortilla, handmade and offered in a mixed version (with beef and pork) or with a choose your own protein version, both lacquered with black bean paste, tomatoes, avocado, salsa, cabbage, and Oaxacan cheese.
3. Parra’s, East Oakland
Photo by Annelies Zijderveld
Located on International Blvd. in the heart of the Fruitvale neighborhood, Parra’s imports their tlayudas and Queso de Oaxaca from Oaxaca. While they’ve only been serving the gigantic dish for five months, it’s quickly become one of their most popular menu items. They offer three kinds of tlayuda—chorizo, carne asada and mixed (with chorizo and carne asada).
4. Las 15 Salsas, Phoenix
Photo courtesy of Las 15 y Salsas
At Las 15 y Salsas, you’ll find a tlayuda for every taste with four variations on the menu including a version with mole negro, chicken and queso fresco. If you tend to order any sort of meat lover’s pizza, go with the three meat Combinada Tlayuda topped with tasajo, cecina and chorizo.
5. Xochi, Hugo’s, Caracol, Houston
Photo courtesy of Xochi
For 2017 James Beard award-winning Best Chef Southwest Hugo Ortega, tlayuda appears on the menu at three of his restaurants in Houston. His namesake restaurant, Hugo’s offers it stuffed with Mexican rice, housemade quesillo and grilled skirt steak. Over at Mexican coastal kitchen, Caracol, the tlayuda comes with char-grilled beef, Oaxacan cheese, white rice, and a sauce made from yellow Oaxacan chile, pasilla and ancho chile. His restaurant, Xochi offers four kinds of tlayuda at lunch each including a twist on tradition with the hongos (roasted mushroom) tlayuda including Texas goat cheese, vegetarian beans, hoja santa and mole Amarillo or the tlayuda de res seen in the photo above with skirt steak, chichilo quesillo and Oaxacan black beans.
6. Mi Lindo Oaxaca, Dallas
Photo courtesy of Mi Lindo Oaxaca
Spread with refried black beans, the tlayuda at Mi Lindo Oaxaca in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas includes cabbage, Oaxaca cheese, and avocado or cured sausage. You can also order the Mixta, their meat lover’s version with three meats.
7. Nixta, St. Louis
Photo courtesy of Nixta
Inspired by Chef Tello Carreon’s upbringing in Mexico and blended with James Beard Best Chef Midwest semi-finalist Chef Ben Poremba’s Israeli heritage, St, Louis eatery, Nixta brings a Mediterranean flavor to tlayuda, topped with carrot-coriander salsa, burrata, seeds and a smattering of fresh herbs.
8. Kie-Gol-Lanee, Chicago
Photo courtesy of Kie-Gol-Lanee
Named after a small village in Oaxaca called Quiegolani, Chicago’s Kie-Gol-Lanee serves a traditional tlayuda with refried beans, cabbage, tomatoes and Oaxacan cheese. You can add cecina, skirt steak or chorizo, or go vegetarian with mushrooms and squash.
9. Casa Mezcal, New York
Photo courtesy of Casa Mezcal
At Casa Mezcal in New York, the tlayuda clocks in at 16 inches, smeared with refried black beans, crumbly Oaxacan cheese, a trifecta of tomatoes, onion and chile with chorizo, chicken, tasajo or vegetables.
Annelies Zijderveld’s first cookbook, Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea, is available now. She has been published in Curator magazine, Arthouse America, and Sated Magazine.