“You should come here on Sunday. That’s when people from my community [Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte region] show up in their traditional clothing,” says Zeferino Montellano, co-owner of Casa de la Clayuda Oaxaqueña, a Oaxacan restaurant in Koreatown. Located along a strip of Vermont Avenue in the middle of LA’s Indigenous Maya and Zapoteco enclaves of Westlake and Koreatown, respectively, Montellano sells delicious, traditional Oaxacan cuisine to shoppers going to the numerous discount stores in the area. Inside, there are a few tables; a steam table with a dozen or so pans filled with tempting stews, moles, and soups; that have nothing to do with an old menu board left by the previous owner.
For his customers from Yalálag, as well as other parts of Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte region, weekends are for caldo de costilla oreada (beef rib soup) with tamales de frijol (bean tamales), hand-stirred pozontle (a foamy cacao drink), and tacos serranos — a corn tortilla brushed with flavorful asientos (unrefined lard), sprinkled with a bit of cheese, then rolled and served with spicy salsa roja.
For non-Oaxacans, the extent of Sierra Norte’s gastronomy in Los Angeles has come from Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez at Poncho’s Tlayudas, who makes barbacoa, tamales de frijol, or exquisite blood sausage to go with his signature tlayudas. Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte has a rich cuisine derived from the Indigenous cooking of Zapotecos, Mixe, and Chinantecos, and is largely unknown outside of the region. Barbacoa in the Sierra Norte means lamb in wet adobo, often barrel-roasted with lots of avocado leaves. Then there’s pozontle, the cacao-based drink hand stirred with a molinillo (wooden whisk) blended with corn, panela (unrefined cane sugar), and cocolmécatl (mountain vine). Other regional Sierra Norte dishes include caldo de costilla with tamales de frijol, tamales de tres picos (triangular tamales), cuasg (corn with beans), amarillo de zorrillo (skunk in yellow salsa), and so many more that are particular to various towns and language groups.
Many of these dishes, like caldo de costilla oreada con tamales de frijol, are more often prepared for ceremonies and special occasions, but Montellano’s customers from Yalálag had been asking him to serve it. As a result, his cousin Francisca “Panchita” Aquino Montellano, who is the restaurant’s traditional cook and co-owner, expanded the weekend menu with these exclusive recipes. She learned them from her mother, Alicia Montellano, who ran Comedor Licha out of her home back in Yalálag. Served at patron saint festivals like Fiesta Patronal de San Antonio and Fiesta Patronal de San Juan, and also weddings and other events, this soup is a rare glimpse into an insular community of Indigenous Zapotecos that don’t often share their culture commercially.
Indigenous Zapotecos from the Sierra Norte are not typically restaurateurs, like their more business-minded neighbors from Valles Centrales. “Until recently, caldo de costilla was only available at these community events, but now, there are some comedores in places like Yalálag that make it during the 12-week season of patron saint events,” says Isai Pazos Bernabe, a Zapoteco from Yalálag who serves as community affairs director at CIELO, an Indigenous woman-led nonprofit. For Panchita Montellano’s customers, the weekend is enough of a reason to enjoy their favorite meal.
The deliciously funky beef ribs of caldo de costilla are first salted and cured, then soaked in water, and finally cooked in a light stock of dried red chiles and avocado leaves. The resulting meat is a little firm — cured and dried meats are popular throughout Oaxaca — and intentionally gamey, moistened by a translucent red broth, and eaten with rolled black bean tamales. The alternating layers of beans and masa scented with avocado leaves are strictly a utensil for eating this soup, and completes the dish by imparting its herbal flavors into each bite.
Another thing to order is the frothy pozontle, which has a bitter molasses finish. Ask for it with rice, which adds a little richness to this traditional Sierra Norte beverage that’s usually found at community events in Los Angeles. The pozontle goes well with the caldo de costilla, too. “The taco serrano is a very simple dish from my hometown in Sierra Norte,” says Zeferino Montellano. He drops off a large, warm, rolled corn tortilla, enriched by the blend of cheese and savory lard, and balanced by fiery red salsa.
Feasting on unique foods from the Sierra Norte is reason enough to visit Casa de las Clayudas, but as the name suggests this is a house of clayudas (also spelled tlayudas), and Panchita Montellano makes some of the best in town. The clayudas boast high-quality asientos, the most important ingredient in seasoning this famed Oaxacan street food dish, and artisanal moronga, or blood sausage, which Casa de la Clayuda Oaxaqueña sources from Poncho Martinez of Poncho’s Tlayudas, who makes the asientos and moronga, and imports the quesillo. Typical add-ons to a good clayuda include meats like tasajo (beef jerky), Oaxacan chorizo, or cecina (marinated pork). The clayuda (crispy tortilla) itself is fresh, and there’s plenty of herbs in the tasty black bean puree. The outstanding clayudas are then folded, toasted on a gas grill before being cut into large wedges, and served with a salsa roja of smoked chiles.
Another feature of this compact restaurant is the cocina económica, which is sort of like a three-course meal of sopa aguada (lentils or other beans), sopa seca (rice or pasta), and guisado (a stew or braise, generally speaking). Or the meal could be fashioned into the more familiar rice and beans, served with a guisado on the same plate. Mexican American restaurants call this a combo plate, but the cocina económica is actually a style of restaurant that typically cooks regional food, a type of place that emerged during the Porfiriato, offering factory workers quick, delicious meals. This was Mexico’s fast-food revolution.
Panchita Montellano’s skills shine in Oaxacan plates like mole negro, caldo de pollo with chayote and green beans, and pig’s feet in a salsa verde. She also cooks daily stews like barbacoa de pollo — a succulent, spicy stew of dried red chiles and chicken stock cooked with avocado leaves. Salsa de huevo, a stack of thin omelets in tangy salsa verde, and, really, just about anything in the steam table make for delicious, filling meals. Including tasty rice and beans, each combo plate costs just $10, with no tax added. The menu of more than a dozen stews warming in the steam table changes a little bit each day, showing the depth of Panchita Montellano’s cooking.
It’s remarkable that such a compact space could be a destination for so much great cooking, from some of the city’s best clayudas to hot-and-ready Oaxacan stews to even special-occasion dishes from Yalálag. This part of Koreatown has one of LA’s largest populations of Zapotecos, comprising a diverse community representing four of Oaxaca’s eight regions. It’s really an ideal location for LA’s first Yalálag restaurant, run by a skilled cook who makes it all look easy. “Back in the Sierra Norte, we cooked for big events and had the comedor, so I learned a lot of recipes from my mom. Doing all these stews, and changing up the menu each day — it’s nothing,” says Panchita Montellano.
Casa de la Clayuda Oaxaqueña is located at 752 S. Vermont Ave., Koreatown, (323) 509-6297. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.