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Traditional Oaxacan dishes laid out on a colorful table.
Dishes from Comedor Tenchita, one of LA’s notable new Oaxacan restaurants operating in a Mid-City home.
Wonho Frank Lee

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This 76-Year-Old Indigenous Cook Makes LA’s Best Oaxacan Food From Her Mid-City Home

Dishes from Valles Centrales like empanadas de amarillo, menudo, and estofado verde star at this once-a-week kitchen

The feeling of anticipation is palpable when walking up the driveway to Comedor Tenchita for the first time. Early on Sunday morning before service begins, a basket of warm pan dulce delivered from Tlacolula Panadería y Restaurante on Venice Boulevard fills the air with sweet, fresh aromas of pan de yema, hojaldras, and conchas. Diners sip café de olla on picnic benches covered in colorful plastic Oaxacan tablecloths spread out on a patio adorned with papel picado. The excitement is warranted — most regulars have likely seen this weekend’s dishes posted on Comedor Tenchita’s Instagram account, which are revealed on Thursdays.

Doña Hortensia “Tenchita” Melchor, a traditional Zapoteca cook from Tlacolula, had been catering private events in the Oaxacan community for 11 years, offering buffets of Valles Centrales plates and making a name for herself among Oaxacans before opening Comedor Tenchita two years ago. Back in Tlacolula, she’d learned these recipes assisting her mom, Herminia Gutierrez, who catered Oaxacan weddings, baptisms, and parties, where regional cuisine is a fixture at events. Each weekend, Melchor writes a menu of specials — many of which have never before been served at LA Oaxacan restaurants — like segueza de pollo, a mole zapoteco thickened with broken yellow corn, flavored by dried red chiles and hierba santa; estofado verde, a pale green, slightly sour mole of jalapenos with a touch of pickled peppers and almonds; or bisteces de res, a homey pot roast of beef, potatoes, and tomatoes only found in Tlacolula homes.

Also known as fondas, comedores (literally meaning dining tables), include market stalls, small restaurants, food halls, taquerias, and home-based restaurants. Comedores proliferated in Mexico during the 20th century, when, as culinary investigator Héctor Gil Mejía explains, the regional kitchens opened in “new peripheral neighborhoods of Mexican cities where newly arrived families from towns and ranches established their new homes.” The casual restaurants were equipped with improvised kitchens and short menus, forming what Gil called “authentic culinary societies” among the women-led kitchens that served provincial dishes to workers from the same communities seeking warming, home-cooked meals at affordable prices.

Open kitchen in the patio of Comedor Tenchita in Los Angeles with pots, pans, burners, and ingredients.
Open kitchen in the patio of Comedor Tenchita in Los Angeles.
Cooks prepare dishes at a Oaxacan home restaurant in LA.
Doña Hortensia “Tenchita” Melchor’s family helps cook food at Comedor Tenchita in Los Angeles.
Cup of Mexican coffee on a printed flower tablecloth.
Cafe de olla at Comedor Tenchita.
Cook chops herbs next to a tub of salsa verde.
Chopping things at Comedor Tenchita.

Though prevalent in Mexico, it’s not often one finds a truly amazing comedor in Los Angeles. Enter Comedor Tenchita, which serves Oaxacan from the Valles Centrales in this quiet, residential section of Mid-City; the location is easy to reach for Oaxacans who come from neighboring enclaves in Koreatown, Arlington Heights, and West Adams. Oaxacans have spread the word about Comedor Tenchita, which prepares Indigenous recipes on a backyard patio made by a traditional cook, an Indigenous, meztizo, or Afromexicano cook that preserves indigenous or Mexican regional cuisines. Those who’ve visited Oaxaca will recognize this type of place, too; it’s an experience they’ve sought out in Mexico’s most celebrated culinary state.

Older Oaxacan woman sits and poses wearing a light sweather and floral print dress holding a mask in her hand.
Doña Hortensia “Tenchita” Melchor
Alex Lopez

Comedores do not have 60-plus menu items, six different moles, or snack samplers like many Oaxacan restaurants around Los Angeles. This isn’t an operation with line cooks, either. Instead, one mentor makes the mole of the day, and their sazón, or traditional seasoning, is on every dish. This is craft cuisine and artistry rarely found outside of Oaxaca. “I come for the variety,” says regular Tomás Altamirano, who was born in a town near Ocotlán de Morelos, and came here with his wife, Natalia, and their two daughters, Emily and Nancy. While Comedor Tenchita serves a limited menu, its dishes are not typically served in LA’s mainstream Oaxacan restaurants, and where there’s crossover — think antojitos like memelas, tortas, and enchiladas — the difference is that the ones served here feel like having them at home, if your mom was a Oaxacan master in the kitchen.

Traditional Tlacolula breakfasts like higaditos, for example, are not found at LA’s local Oaxacan restaurants. Higaditos are a complex preparation of beaten eggs loaded with shredded chicken, onions, tomato, and chiles that’s then carefully cooked in broth. “I wanted to add higaditos to my brunch menu but it wasn’t possible for us to pull off in a larger restaurant space — it’s not an easy or quick dish and takes a lot of effort. Even my mom [in Oaxaca City] will only make it for special occasions,” says Ivan Vasquez, owner of Madre restaurant. The ingredients are then corralled to the center of the pot with a spoon until they form a rough solid mass that’s eventually pulled out, cut into slices, and served with the broth. A tangy, spicy salsa roja of chile de arbol and tomatillos is the traditional condiment that completes the dish; most diners will eat the higaditos with Melchor’s handmade corn tortillas fresh from the comal.

Pot simmers on a makeshift outdoor kitchen.
Outdoor kitchen at Comedor Tenchita in Mid-City, Los Angeles.
Cook prepares marinated meat on a flat top grill.
Cook prepares marinated meat on a flat top grill.
Wonho Frank Lee

For Mexican Americans like Alan Alanis, who went to Comedor Tenchita three weekends in a row in February 2022, this is a taste of Mexico he can’t find anywhere else in Los Angeles. “There’s nothing like real Mexican food, handmade tortillas — I’ve been trying different dishes each week,” says Alanis, who grew up eating Mexican American comfort food and northern Mexican dishes from Nuevo León where his family is from. Eating Indigenous Oaxacan home cooking for the first time, something he may have only seen on Netflix or YouTube, has increased Alanis’s desire to travel to Oaxaca.

The mostly Oaxacan clientele has been bringing friends from other parts of Mexico to experience what might be one of the best Oaxacan restaurants in Los Angeles, one that serves regional dishes that are only found at places like Teotitlán del Valle’s Tlamanalli, Oaxaca’s most famous comedor. Like other great comedores of Valles Centrales, Melchor makes empanadas de amarillo — large, thick corn tortillas filled with a dense, bright-orange mole of toasted dried chiles, hierba santa, and shredded chicken. The lightly crispy empanadas are folded and sealed, then toasted on the comal until the filling soaks into the tortilla, clinging to each bite. Melchor also makes empanadas de amarillo with beef kidney, a rare offering with bolder flavor, or empanadas de verde (green mole), an herbaceous blend of fresh chiles serranos and jalapenos, blended with hierba santa, cilantro, parsley, and thickened with corn masa.

Her menudo is light and almost fruity from the dried red chiles, filled with delicate cuts of tripe and foot swimming in a translucent ochre-shaded broth. It’s dabbled with fatty red flecks that add just enough richness to the beautifully refined stew of offal. Her antojitos, which are a hit with customers, are sublime. They include molotes, deep-fried masa croquettes packed with potato and chorizo, later dressed with black bean puree, then a cool covering of shredded lettuce, and crumbled cheese; taquitos bathed in sweet, rich mole coloradito; and fluffy tamales de chepíl (a bitter herb).

Tortillas on a comal with a burning flame underneath.
Tortillas on a comal.
Higaditos with salsa and a side of tortillas on a colorful tablecloth.
Higaditos with salsa and a side of tortillas.
Colorful red menudo stew with fresh herbs on a floral-print table.
Menudo from Comedor Tenchita.
Molotes with shredded lettuce and crumbled cheese.
Molotes with shredded lettuce and crumbled cheese.

The appropriate beverage to accompany this feast is phenomenal tepache made by photographer and tepache master Alex Lopez, who founded an artisanal brand called Tepache Zapoteca, and helped set up Comedor Tenchita’s social media account, which has attracted some new customers. “We also have some white people that have found us on Instagram,” says David Ramos, Melchor’s son-in-law, who works alongside his wife, Noemi, and her sister, Veronica.

Lopez sets up behind the picnic benches on Melchor’s patio and offers customers samples of tepache as they settle in to order. Using a recipe he learned 20 years ago from a friend’s mom, he brews the fermented drink of pineapple rinds, piloncillo, and spices. He makes a boozy version spiked with pulque, and another with sal de gusano (worm salt). Finally, he mixes a sweet-and-sour pineapple-hibiscus tepache that could be the Arnold Palmer of Oaxacalifornia. “Lopez is the one that started our Instagram and helped us promote our comedor,” says Ramos.

As at Oaxaca’s many comedores, assistants from the community, in this case Melchor’s daughters and son-in-law, show up each Sunday to support the matriarch. Doña Tenchita is a traditional Zapoteca cook who has spent the majority of her 76 years in the kitchen, preserving her mother’s recipes from Tlacolula, and spreading their flavors to her compatriots in Oaxacalifornia. The dishes are on par with the best comedores in the Valles Centrales in Oaxaca, with the kind of attention to detail that rivals some of the most celebrated restaurants in Los Angeles. “It invigorates me to hear people say they enjoyed my food, our Oaxacan plates, and the flavor of my hometown: Tlacolula,” says Melchor.

Comedor Tenchita serves at 2124 S. Cloverdale Ave., Mid-City on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Outdoor kitchen of Comedor Tenchita with workers cooking and ingredients on a white table.
Outdoor kitchen of Comedor Tenchita.
A pale green mole with a side of fresh tortillas.
Estofado verde, a pale green, slightly sour mole of jalapenos with a touch of pickled peppers and almonds.
Tamales de chepíl (a bitter herb) being unwrapped with hands.
Tamales de chepíl, a bitter herb.
Plate of stewed beef, potatoes, black beans, and rice.
Bisteces de res, a homey pot roast of beef, potatoes, and tomatoes.
Empanada de amarillo — large, thick corn tortillas filled with a dense, bright-orange mole of toasted dried chiles, hierba santa, and shredded chicken.
Empanada de amarillo — large, thick corn tortillas filled with a dense, bright-orange mole of toasted dried chiles, hierba santa, and shredded chicken.
Tepache maker scoops up the Mexican beverage into a cup at a table.
Tepache master and photographer Alex Lopez serves tepache at Comedor Tenchita.
Alex Lopez scoops up pineapple-hibiscus tepache with a ladle and funnels it into a bottle.
Alex Lopez scoops up pineapple-hibiscus tepache.
Tepache bottles in purple and yellow poured into traditional gourds on a floral-print table.
Two kinds of tepache served at Comedor Tenchita.
Menudo and other dishes from Comedor Tenchita served up together on a floral-print table.
Menudo and other dishes from Comedor Tenchita.
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