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Review: Poncho’s Tlayudas, a window to Oaxaca, serves one of L.A.’s defining dishes

The tlayuda mixta from Poncho’s Tlayudas includes three meats: moronga, chorizo and tasajo.
(Paul Argumedo / For The Times)
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One recent Friday I brought a widely traveled, well-fed friend visiting Los Angeles to Poncho’s Tlayudas, a weekend Oaxacan pop-up in South L.A. that reemerged from a two-year hiatus in early March. My friend had spent several days making the rounds of our city’s latest and greatest restaurants. Now he clutched half of a tlayuda. The folded and stuffed tortilla, straight from the grill, took both hands to wield. After one bite his face contorted in wonder. “This is the best thing I’ve eaten this week,” he said.

Yes. We all have places we take people to say, “This is the Los Angeles I love.” A few of mine include Mariscos Jalisco for tacos dorados de camarón, République for pastries and Ototo for sake and fried snacks. A tlayuda con tres carnes at Poncho’s, now that it’s back, is on the short list too.

Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez of Poncho’s Tlayudas.
(Paul Argumedo / For The Times)

The tortillas that Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez uses to craft his singular specialty come from Oaxaca, made by families who have been growing, milling and nixtamalizing corn for generations. They measure around 14 inches, mostly uniform in size but each etched with uniquely patterned edges — some singed, some smooth, some jagged like mountain landscapes seen from a distance.

Depending on the variety of corn, the color of the tortillas can be inkblot blue or the faded pink of a favorite childhood T-shirt. The ones you see stacked under Poncho’s red tent lately tend to be a creamy pale gold.

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He starts to build a tlayuda by painting his tortilla canvas with asiento, a fresh, toasted lard he renders himself. Its flavor doesn’t oink too loudly; it’s more of a bass booster to amplify the other ingredients. He spreads over refritos — black beans simmered with garlic, onion and avocado leaves, whizzed into a nubbly puree and then sizzled in a pan with more garlic. Next comes quesillo, the Oaxacan cheese pulled into short strings and sprinkled with a judicious hand.

Martinez or his grill man, Alberto Vasquez, will lay the round tlayuda on a grate over live mesquite coals. The tortilla, stiff from its long journey, softens and then crisps over the heat and breathes in some of the woodsy smoke. If you’ve ordered the option of tres carnes (and you should strongly consider it), Martinez or Vasquez will crumble over a generous blanket of chorizo. Shredded cabbage goes on last, and then the tlayuda is folded in half on the grill, warmed for a couple minutes longer and finally whacked in two.

Martinez grills a tlayuda mixta over mesquite.
(Paul Argumedo / For The Times)

If you order the tlayuda with three meats, on the side will be miraculous moronga, his blood sausage (more on that shortly), and tasajo, a thin, nearly hourglass-shaped cut of flank steak. It’s pleasantly chewy and satisfying to alternate with bites of the sausage. Tlayudas also may be ordered with one meat — moronga, chorizo or tasajo — and a fresh, light vegetarian version enfolds chopped nopales and sometimes oyster mushrooms inside the tortilla.

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A vegetarian tlayuda.
(Paul Argumedo / For The Times)

Martinez’s masterwork coaxes all the senses into play. You pick up a hot, fin-shaped section of tlayuda with fingers dancing to keep from burning. The tortilla smells of corn warmed by sunshine. Your eyes gauge the best starting point to dive in; it’s at the crease, where you’ll find a density of tastes and textures. A two-toned crackle-crunch rings in your jaw; your taste buds register layered spice and earthy depths from the beans and threads of half-melted cheese. You’re aware of your serene surroundings in a shrubbery-filled yard, in a grove of tables filled with diners in similar states of elation. But you’re also very focused on the tactile marvel that is yours alone to savor.

Poncho’s Tlayudas resumed steady hours after months of sporadic pandemic-related closures and Plan B experiments — much of it due to the pipeline of crucial Oaxacan ingredients drying up when COVID-19 halted the world in March 2020. I’d gorged on Martinez’s tlayudas a few times pre-shutdown and enjoyed them immensely, but their reappearance reminds me how exceptional and vital they are to the city.

Los Angeles knows tlayudas, one specialty among many local expressions of Oaxacan cuisine. Southern California is home to the largest Oaxacan population outside Mexico — an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 residents — including indigenous Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mixes and other groups. Restaurants in L.A. usually serve tlayudas open-faced, in the guise of photogenic spheres showered with quesillo and arranged with sliced avocado and nopal strips circling concentrically, like spokes around a bicycle tire.

The pandemic is not over for the backbone of the L.A. restaurant industry: Indigenous and undocumented workers. This group is helping.

Martinez, who is Zapotec, grew up eating tlayudas grilled and folded by cooks in Oaxaca’s Central Valleys, where he was raised, so that’s how he prefers serving them. His tlayuda mastery began as a backyard project around 2010 and, spurred by the exclamatory reaction of friends, grew into a catering side gig by 2012. Martinez and Odilia Romero, his wife and business partner, established Poncho’s Tlayudas as a regular pop-up in 2016. Soon publications like L.A. Taco were praising their transportive qualities.

Moronga, the exceptional blood sausage, became an accompanying signature. The recipe was a wedding gift to Martinez from Romero’s father; its secrets have been passed down for four generations. Martinez has always set it on the side of the tlayuda sliced, rather than using it as a filling; it lands on the palate like a savory pudding, with a minty trill from fresh yerba buena grown in a neighbor’s garden. The couple often joke that pairing moronga with a tlayuda is pure Oaxacalifornia — a result of their union and shared experience in the United States. Romero grew up in the highlands of Oaxaca, where tlayudas aren’t part of the repertoire, and never ate one until she arrived in Los Angeles.

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Previously the pop-up was set up in the backyard of a house along a block of South Main Street out of which Romero currently runs CIELO, or Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo, a women-led organization focused on cultural programming that also advocates for Indigenous restaurant workers. (In an interview Martinez and Romero talked about supporting Oaxacan farmers as a way to support the region’s “corn economy.” It’s clear their culinary and social justice endeavors have synergy.) Customers would sometimes complain that they couldn’t find the place. Now the grill and tables are set up in the front yard; even in the dark, there’s no missing the road-facing sign mounted on the tent flashing the word “tlayudas” in rainbow colors.

Martinez’s tlayuda begins with the tortilla, topped with asiento, followed by frijoles refritos, cabbage and meats, such as crumbled chorizo.
(Paul Argumedo / For The Times)

Friday nights are the mainstay for Poncho’s Tlayudas. Lately, with so many in the Zapotec community refraining from eating meat on Fridays for Lent, Martinez and his small team were making a second weekend appearance on Sunday afternoons. Turnout has been encouraging, so they’re making Sundays a steady thing. Check Instagram to be sure they’re open.

When supplies for tlayudas were scarce, Martinez turned to making tamales de frijol wrapped in banana or avocado leaves. Through a sponsorship, he was recently given one of the tamale carts designed by Richard Gomez of Revolution Carts, which comes pre-licensed by the city for street vending. I had Martinez’s tamales during one round of 2020’s restaurant closures and they’re wonderful, silky and herbal. But there’s nothing like his tlayudas.

Poncho’s Tlayudas

4318 S. Main St., Los Angeles, (213) 359-0264, ponchostlayudas.com

Prices: Tlayudas $15-$20

Details: Open Fridays 5-9:30 p.m., and sometimes Sundays starting at 10 a.m. No alcohol. Street parking.

Recommended dishes: Tlayuda con tres carnes

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