Washington Boulevard in Culver City cuts through a sleepy residential community studded with longtime neighborhood gems like Cognoscenti Coffee; Industry, the Eritrean and Ethiopian spot that showcases live jazz music; and old-school pizza and pasta spot Brunello Trattoria. Even among those neighborhood anchors, EK Valley, a decade-old Oaxacan restaurant, stands out as a secret that only Culver City denizens seem to know about.
Though LA is known for its expansive Oaxacan restaurants serving a wide variety of food from the region, like the James Beard-recognized Guelaguetza in Koreatown, EK Valley is beloved among locals for its inventive take on a classic Mexican American dish: the humble burrito. More specifically, EK Valley’s burrito mojado (wet burrito), which comes filled with a choice of carne asada, chicken, salmon, carnitas, or any of chef Epifanio “Epy” Garcia’s house-cured Oaxacan meats, such as tasajo, chorizo, or cecina, plus rice and beans. Then, in a bit of a surprise, Garcia ladles on an epic amount of viscous jet-black mole before topping it off with crema drizzled in a criss-cross pattern.
Mexican American wet burritos typically feature a red or green salsa, or a stewed meat sauce like the gigantic Hollenbeck at Boyle Heights’s famed El Tepeyac. But the thick mole at EK Valley works incredibly well with the shop’s burritos, the sauce melding into every bite and providing a sweet dried chile punch and chocolatey sweetness.
Over the past decade, Culver City, the longtime home of Sony Pictures, has changed rapidly due to the influx of Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and other big companies trying to get into the streaming boom. Shiny real estate projects and chef-driven restaurants followed, looking to benefit from well-paid workers. Through it all, Garcia and his wife Tobias Lopez have served the community with a half-dozen tables placed inside the tangerine orange- and marigold yellow-painted dining room at EK Valley. Sprinkled with folk art, it’s like walking into a Oaxacan home to feast on heaping plates of tlayudas, mole, and enchiladas.
Garcia, who hails from San Miguel del Valles in Oaxaca, worked in various restaurants there before opening a food truck in LA called Epy’s Kitchen in 2011. Though the truck only lasted eight months, he quickly found this Culver City space in 2012. He ran into a bit of a conundrum when picking a name, though. “All the good Oaxacan names are already taken here!” says Garcia. “Monte Alban, Juquila, Morenita… there are so many.” Garcia shortened the truck’s name and added Valley, a reference to his hometown of San Miguel del Valle.
EK Valley serves a slew of typical Valles Centrales dishes that could be found at any one of LA’s numerous Oaxacan restaurants, but the photogenic mole burrito was inspired by his time in California. “In California, they have wet burritos, like in Tex-Mex cuisine. I said well, why not do a mole burrito? And people loved it,” says Garcia. One of the reasons the burrito became popular was EK Valley’s clientele, which is almost entirely non-Latino. “For some reason, a lot of Oaxacans don’t come here,” he says. “But that’s the business that I have, and I’m happy.” That’s led to Garcia adding a lot of dishes from the Mexican American canon, like fajitas, taquitos, and quesadillas, to go alongside traditional Oaxacan fare.
Throughout the pandemic, EK Valley was able to boost sales with a festive semi-covered sidewalk patio, though if Culver City jacks up the fees, Garcia said he’s going to have to cut back on expenses. It’d be a shame considering the mom-and-pop vibes and stellar Oaxacan flavor that the restaurant brings to the neighborhood as fancy French, Italian, and fine dining restaurants keep opening down the block closer to all the new developments.
Like a lot of Oaxacan restaurants, Garcia’s mole game is really strong, including ruddy coloradito, bright red, pale yellow amarillo, or mole negro (black mole). And while certainly not traditional, adding salty, cured tasajo or marinated cecina that would normally be sliced onto molcajetes into the burrito gives them an added meaty punch. Oaxacans know that mole isn’t just a sauce atop the dish — it is the dish. That’s why mole traditionally tends to feature on milder proteins like chicken, or enchiladas. For me, the stewed carnitas worked best with the mole burrito, nicely balanced with spices and chiles. And Garcia agrees, picking that combination for most first-timers. “It’s richer and has more flavor. For me, black mole is the king of moles.”