Many discussions of tortillas in Mexico fall short of the diversity that exists. It’s not enough to say that corn tortillas dominate in the South and flour tortillas in the North. Corn tortillas are different in every state. Only the Gruma corporation makes claims about any national style, with its terrible industrial tortillas made from Maseca corn flour and its flavorless, dull mix.
In the case of Oaxacan cuisine, the tlayuda is a large, thin, crispy tortilla that’s cooked until most of the water in the masa evaporates. The special tortilla is only found in Mexico’s most celebrated southern state. The word tlayuda comes from tlao-li, which means “husked corn” in nahuatl. In Oaxaca, one will also find large soft, corn tortillas called blanditas, but the tlayuda is more than a tortilla: It’s a symbol of Oaxacan culture.
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Tlayudas are only produced in Oaxaca by highly skilled cooks. By the mid ’90s, they became available in Los Angeles as Soledad Lopez and other Oaxaca restaurateurs began to import them. Today, they can be found all over the many Oaxacan enclaves in LA at restaurants, food trucks, stands, and markets.
Most Oaxacan restaurants in town offer a few different prepared tlayudas — served flat — covered with asiento, refried beans, quesillo, vegetables like tomato and lettuce, sliced avocado and the most popular Oaxaca meats: tasajo, cecina, and chorizo, either separately or in a combo. In Oaxacalifornia, the name given to Southern California by the Oaxcan community for its sizable Oaxaca population and culture, the tlayuda scene comes from Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales, or Central Valley. However, there’s one new contender that’s truly upping the tlayuda game in LA, and it’s hidden in a South LA home.
A new Oaxacan street star waiting to be discovered: Poncho’s Tlayudas
Tlayudas are the most difficult corn tortillas to make. They’re so difficult to master that they are only produced by battle-scarred tortilla makers in Oaxaca. The tortillas are pressed to the size and thickness of a mini-bass drum head with a coarse, wrinkly texture and a stiffness that eases enough for the tlayuda to double over when cooked on a comal or grill.
All of the tlayudas in LA are imported from Oaxaca, and are less pliant than the fresh-made versions, but Alfonso “Poncho” Martínez de Santo Domingo Albarradas’s “viernes de tlayuda,” or tlayuda Friday, is ushering in new era of Oaxacan street food with artisanal blue corn and yellow corn tlayudas as good as you’ll find in Oaxaca City. He sources the giant tortillas from a family in Tlacolula that makes tlayudas exclusively for him, as well as his asientos, or lard. “That’s where you get most of the flavor,” Martinez said, “besides the tortillas.”
His smoky tortillas are smeared with asiento and black beans, Oaxacan cheese, and a choice of tasajo, chorizo, and an unconventional but delicious artisanal blood sausage. After receiving the folded tlayuda, dress with it salsa, shredded lettuce, and other vegetables. It’s as if Pitao Cozobi (the Zapotec god of maize) has deemed Oaxacalifornia worthy of this blessing, of real tlayudas grilled over mesquite, just like in Poncho’s hometown of Tlacolula. It’s almost impossible to imagine getting tlayudas anywhere else in LA once you’ve had a taste of Poncho’s.
The indigenous cuisines of Mexico have survived European invasions, civil war, and globalization. “Traditional indigenous cooking is resistance,” declares Poncho on his Instagram. Poncho’s is a gathering place for the Zapotec community and exists to serve the indigenous peoples in California. So enjoy a delicious tlayuda in Oaxacalifornia, in the name of resistance and “food sovereignty.”
Poncho’s Tlayudas. Friday evenings. 4318 S Main St, Historic South Central, Los Angeles, CA