What do Tesla and tlayudas have in common? In Riverside, quite a bit.
Twenty-one years ago, aviation mechanic Efraín Toledo and his wife, Antonia Toledo, began serving Oaxacan food from their hometown of Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Oaxaca, in their Riverside backyard. Around the same time, Toledo began working in the Inland Empire’s aerospace industry.
“I’ve done work for Tesla, NASA, SpaceX in different places — Rancho Cucamonga, Corona. I’ve even worked on missiles,” says Toledo. But after a long day of wearing cleanroom coveralls, working closely with engineers on airframes and rocket engine sections, and assembling Teslas, Toledo had no place to go in the evenings for the Valles Centrales food he craved: tlayudas, molotes (a filled and fried masa-based pastry), quesadillas, and memelitas (thick masa cakes topped with meat or beans). And thus Cenaduría Oaxaqueña Donají, named after the legendary Zapoteca princess, was born. (A cenaduría loosely translates to a “dinner house.”)
Over the years, fellow Zapotecos have spread the word about the couple’s offerings. Nowadays, by 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, there’s a line outside their white-tented backyard, and the dirt parking lot in the driveway is full, thanks to the exceptional Valles Centrales food the Toledos serve on tablecloth-covered picnic tables at the best Oaxacan house party in Southern California.
“You missed out, a few weeks ago we had a concert by Eric Torres,” says Toledo, who hosted a night of romantic music by the local singer, paired with his “artisanal Oaxacan food” at the cenaduría, which is partially concealed by a barrier wall along a frontage road, just along the east side of the 215 highway.
Upon entering the yard’s large white party tent, there’s a grill, comal, and masa station on the right; on the left, guests are welcomed with sips of mezcal complete with botanas (snacks). Cenaduría Oaxaqueña Donají is the best place in greater Los Angeles for a Valles Centrales-style tlayuda. “Those open-faced pizza things that people are calling tlayudas, that’s not original, with tomatoes and all of that,” says Toledo, who imports the large tortillas for his tlayudas, quesillo (Oaxacan cheese), cured meats, chorizo, and the asientos, or the unrefined lard left over after cooking carnitas. (In Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales, it’s standard practice to source artisanal products for a tlayuda stand from local producers and carnicerias.)
Toledo’s scorched tlayudas are cooked over a charcoal-fired grill and then filled with Antonia’s avocado-studded herbed black beans; warmed, porky asientos; lightly sour quesillo made in Oaxaca’s Villa de Etla; and shredded cabbage. They’re folded and served in a basket along with a side of tasajo (thinly sliced grilled beef jerky), cecina (chile-rubbed grilled pork), chorizo, or a combination thereof. A second serving basket is filled with pungent wild herbs (pipicha and pápalo), plus guajes (bean pods), and other add-ons like roasted onions, chile de agua, and grilled nopales. Competition frisbee-sized memelas are topped with asientos, black-bean puree, and quesillo, further bolstered with a choice of meat or crunchy chapulines (grasshoppers).
Back by the entrance, Toledo’s sister-in-law Conchita Garcia hand-forms huge, torpedo-shaped molotes out of corn masa. They’re stuffed with chorizo and potatoes, then plunged into hot oil. The fried snacks arrive hot and crispy; they’re drowned in avocado sauce and black bean puree, and showered with crumbled queso fresco. It takes a minute for the molote to cool down enough to eat — one is enough for a single person — but a bite full of spicy choripapa (that combination of chorizo and potatoes), cooled by the savory sauces and briny cheese, is at once transportive and euphoric.
The cenaduría also offers tamales de mole and quesadillas, including a lovely quesadilla filled with high-quality quesillo and pieces of torn fresh epazote. The entire thing tastes like a bite of Oaxaca. And of course, there is pan de yema (soft, eggy rolls), café de olla (cinnamon-spiked coffee), and chocolate de leche (hot chocolate with milk), a Valles Centrales combo that’s served at all times of day.
For Toledo and his family, Friday and Saturday nights have been a way to bring the family together for the past two decades to offer up his own authentic taste of his region of Oaxaca, something he feels isn’t offered at more commercial restaurants. It’s also a nice diversion from his demanding job — he rarely stops smiling as he cooks tlayudas for customers that drive from all over for an evening filled with the kind of street food you’d find strolling the capital city of Oaxaca de Juárez at night.
Toledo says, “We are here to offer a customary experience on the weekends, with artisanal gastronomy, that’s made with original products and tastes great. That’s all.”
Cenaduría Oaxaqueña Donají is located at 1608 E. La Cadena Drive in Riverside and is open Friday and Saturday nights from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.