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Importing Mexican Iguana Is Illegal, But This LA Restaurant Serves the Oaxacan Delicacy

Koreatown restaurant Sabores Oaxaqueños serves iguana in two ways

Iguana tamal on a plate with banana leaves at Sabores Oaxaqueños in Los Angeles.
Iguana tamal at Sabores Oaxaqueños in Los Angeles
Wonho Frank Lee

One of the most famous addresses in the Oaxacan community in Southern California, also known as Oaxacalifornia, launched a short menu of rare delicacies from Oaxaca’s Costa region that includes iguana tamales, salsa de chicatanas (flying ants), and mole amarillo de iguana (yellow mole with iguana).

Sabores Oaxaqueños owners Valentín and Germán Granja have been promoting these dishes from their hometown of San Pedro Pochutla in the Oaxaca’s Costa province alongside such menu staples as mole negro, barbacoa enchilada (spicy goat barbacoa), and tlayudas, all of which are common Oaxacan dishes from the region of Valles Centrales.

The Valles Centrales hits are what pays the bills in the majority of LA’s Oaxacan restaurants, but Sabores Oaxaqueños has already found an audience for its Costa dishes, especially the tamales de iguana, a popular evening snack usually sold by itinerant vendors on the beaches of the Costa region. Oaxaca City transplants often pine for the pre-Hispanic protein that are easy to find in Oaxacan beach towns like Huatulco and Puerto Escondido. Meanwhile, LA’s Central Americans who love garrobo (black spiny tailed iguana) find that the tamales remind them of their own regional specialty. Though they were introduced to celebrate Latino Heritage Month, these iguana dishes are now a permanent part of the menu at Sabores Oaxaqueños because of their popularity in Los Angeles

Iguana has been generally absent from Mexican and Central American restaurants because the importation of Mexican iguana is illegal. Eating iguana isn’t illegal in the U.S., but importing the meat is difficult because of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and the Lacey Act, which prevents invasive wildlife from entering the country. That meant the only steady supply was smuggled across the border, through networks, or by taking your chances trying to drive the imperiled species across the border. In 2012, a man was sentenced to two years in prison while trying to smuggle 160 pounds of iguana meat into the United States. It’s costly to go through exotic meat suppliers in the US, but recently, the Granjas found a company in Puerto Rico that could provide a legal, affordable source for their tamales de iguana.

Sabores Oaxaqueños prepares iguana in two ways. It’s available as a tamal or as mole amarillo de iguana, where the tender iguana is served in a thickened hoja santa blend of yellow chiles costeños. The mole amarillo is full of clove and nutty flavors, and comes served with corn tortillas. The salsa de chicatanas served on the side is made with chile de árbol, but registers towards the extreme end of habaneros on the Scoville rating scale, with crunchy bits of herbaceous insects. As for the iguana, there’s some work required to dislodge the lean meat from the bones. When asked about how the meat tastes, she says, “Sabe de pollo,” with a smile. Translated, it means, “tastes like chicken.”

Mole amarillo at Sabores Oaxaqueños in Los Angeles.
Mole amarillo at Sabores Oaxaqueños in Los Angeles

Sabores Oaxaqueños might not have the biggest name recognition in LA, but they’ve been one of the most active Oaxacan restaurants in the Valles Centrales community, participating in annual events like Feria de Los Moles, Feria del Tejate, and LA’s Guelaguetza (an indigenous cultural event which shares a name with the iconic James Beard-award winning restaurant) since it first opened in late 2011.

The original Guelaguetza restaurant space on 8th Street, which first opened in 1994, changed briefly to a cemita and tlayuda-focused place in 2010 called Pal Cabron before it closed a year later. The space is important to the Oaxacan community because it was the first traditional Oaxacan restaurant to open in the Los Angeles. Valentín and Germán Granja, both long time employees at Guelaguetza, jumped at the opportunity to take over the iconic location. Valentín Granja was a manager at the original Guelaguetza for 20 years while his brother Germán worked as a server.

The location held a special place in Valentín’s heart because it’s where he met his future mother-in-law, Dominga Velasco Rodriguez. She first came to the restaurant in 1995, working at this Eighth Street location as the chef de cuisine before moving to Guelaguetza’s newer Olympic Boulevard address until 2010, where she is known for her moles, especially the wonderfully smoky and earthy mole negro. With so many Oaxacan restaurants in LA, mole negro is practically as ubiquitous as the burger, at least in neighborhoods like Hollywood, Arlington Heights, West LA, and Koreatown, where Oaxacan restaurants tend to concentrate.

Close up of the iguana tamal at Sabores Oaxaqueños.
Close up of the iguana tamal at Sabores Oaxaqueños
Anafres, a mix of grilled vegetables at Sabores Oaxaqueños.
Anafres, a mix of grilled vegetables at Sabores Oaxaqueños
Wonho Frank Lee

Tlayudas come with tender cuts of cecina (pork in an adobo rub), tasajo (beef jerky), and chorizo. Those meats are also featured in the anafres (portable ovens), the mixed grill platters served at most Valles Centrales restaurants as a tribute to the corridor of smoky grills (pasillo de humo) inside the Tlacolula and November 20 markets. Think of the anafres as the Oaxacan version of carne asada.

“I’ve been cooking for 40 years, and it’s an art that I enjoy, that I learned from my family,” says Rodriguez. Listening to her go on about Oaxacan foods and cooking techniques from different regions in Mexico’s most respected culinary state evokes the powerful wisdom only found in Mexico’s indigenous communities. All Mexican cuisine, from the fonda (small regional eatery) to modern Mexican institutions is rooted in indigenous thought and practice, not from cookbooks or even cultural immersion. Matriarchs and artisans in the community teach this cuisine, and recipes move across regions through marriage. It’s from this approach that Rodriguez found a context for serving iguana at Sabores Oaxaqueños.

“I love the ocean, and took many trips to the Costa, where I had tamales de iguana.” Rodriguez’s daughter, Analilia, married Valentín Granja in 2003, furthering her connection to Oaxaca’s less known coastal foodways. Though many tourists are are more familiar with more tourist-heavy Puerto Escondido, Rodriguez says she learned to make the iguana tamal in the Costa. “The best beaches and cuisine is in the Costa,” she says.

Iguana mole negro at Sabores Oaxaqueños in Los Angeles.
Mole negro at Sabores Oaxaqueños in Los Angeles
Storefront at Sabores Oaxaqueños with bags, chips, other goods for sale.
Storefront at Sabores Oaxaqueños
Exterior at Sabores Oaxaqueños with colorful signage and tables to the side. Wonho Frank Lee
Valentin Granja, Dominga Velasco Rodriguez Velasco, and Analilia Granja at Sabores Oaxaquenos.
Valentin Granja, Dominga Velasco Rodriguez, and Analilia Granja

Sabores Oaxaquenos

3337 1/2 West 8th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90005 (213) 427-3508 Visit Website
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