Mole coloradito with chicken breast
Now that I've been living in Los Angeles for a while, I've started wondering why it's taken me so long to dive into the Mexican food scene. For christ's sake, I speak Spanish. I can comfortably pronounce everything on any menu. I love tortas de pollo and I've only eaten one the entire time I've lived here.
But a lot of times I'm just not in the mood for Mexican. It's so heavy and I don't like that overly full feeling. But something about summer makes me want to eat a big plate of anything that involves a corn tortilla.
I recently went to Guelaguetza and didn't quite understand all the fuss about Oaxacan food, so I wanted to try another restaurant's rendition. I dined alone, which I rarely do. I am not one of those people who is afraid to dine alone, see a movie alone, or go shopping alone, but in addition to the fun of sharing a meal (and swiping bites of other people's food), it can be really awkward to take photos when you're by yourself. There's no pretending that you're taking a picture of your friend sitting across the table. You can't keep up the casual chat to distract nearby tables from what you're really doing. I don't like attention and obsessively photographing everything I eat five times can draw some stares (and make me feel like a crazy tourist). But I love the photos. The photos are my favorite part.
The decor at Monte Alban cracks me up. You know those faux eroding walls with the exposed brick at Guelaguetza? Monte Alban does the same thing, except their bricks are painted onto the wall. The restaurant is huge, with two separate dining rooms, and a little dark and cave-like, relying mostly on the natural light streaming in through the front windows. The tables are decorated with traditional Mexican blankets, and the ceiling tiles are painted light blue with little wisps of clouds. At a very off-peak lunch time, there were plenty of patrons, all Spanish-speaking. That's always a good sign.
On my first visit, I tried the mole coloradito con pechuga de pollo (red mole with chicken breast) and an empanada amarillo (the empanada itself is not yellow, but rather the mole inside).
The chicken was a lot better than what I tried at Guelaguetza because it was moist. I loved the smokey, sweet mole and the flavorful rice (it looks like plain white rice, but tastes like it's been simmered with chicken broth). Make sure not to get any mole on your clothes because it may never come out. It will stain your fingers for a while, too!
Enchiladas de pollo con mole coloradito
On my second visit, I tried the chicken enchiladas with mole coloradito (you can also order them with mole negro) which were also very good, though they're not prepared the way you're probably used to eating enchiladas. The chicken is served on the side and on the bone, and the enchiladas themselves are just folded corn tortillas drenched in mole and topped with a bit of cheese.
Queso fundido con chorizo
The queso fundido became gooey when it cooled off, so it was difficult to eat as a dip except when it was piping hot. There also wasn't as much chorizo as I would have expected. The presentation was very nice, but I probably wouldn't order it again.
Oaxacan string cheese, or quesillo, has a fresh, briney taste and a chewy texture. It comes on dishes like clayudas, or you can order it on the side.
Empanada with mole amarillo and chicken breast
I didn't like the empanada at all--I thought the mole amarillo tasted like cleaning supplies. The mole verde had the same underlying flavor, but I was still able to eat it. My friend liked both though, so it's really a matter of taste. For me, the best part of the empanada was the crispy outside edges of the tortilla. The tortilla tasted exactly like an authentic Mexican tortilla and sent me straight back to the time I spent living with a host family and eating many strange and occasionally wonderful meals.
All of the moles were quite spicy--finally, a dish that wasn't prepared with my whiteness in mind! The salsa that accompanied the thick, crispy tortilla chips had a nice kick, too.
I also enjoyed an horchata, which was much lighter on the nuts and canteloupe than Guelaguetza's version, and blessedly free of that hot pink cough syrup, but still heavy on the cinnamon. Both of my waitresses were speedy, sweet, and smiley and didn't laugh when I couldn't get "coloradito" off my tongue. When you almost never use your Spanish, it gets a little rusty. By the way, Oaxaca is pronounced "wah-HAH-kah."
I think part of the hype surrounding Oaxacan food is that it's not what you expect when you think of Mexican food. We're so used to eating cheese enchiladas and refried beans that to find out that there is a regional Mexican cuisine involving what are essentially curries is mind-blowing. Oaxacan food is like Indian-Japanese-Mexican fusion, without the pretense and the screwups. And that's why it's so damn good.
Oh, and the cost? Around $20 for two dishes, including tax and tip.
11927 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Monte Alban Menu