The Best Mole In L.A. Is At Sabores Oaxaqueños In The Heart Of Koreatown
In the United States, the best-known variety of Oaxacan food is from the Mexican state’s Central Valleys. It makes sense: Oaxaca City’s airport there makes it easier for foodies to parachute in to sample and interpret the region’s succulent cuisine—and in that diluting process, create a singular standard for taste. But Oaxaca boasts eight regions, marked by the elements of their geographies and indigenous peoples. The shoreline that hugs the Pacific Ocean is known as Costa Chica. And in Los Angeles, there’s only one restaurant that specializes in food from that region: Sabores Oaxaqueños.
Two brothers, Germán Granja and Valentín Granja, own and opened the restaurant in 2011. It’s tucked away near the corner of West 8th and Irolo in Koreatown. When you walk in, you might think you’re in a small grocery store, lined with various artisanal and food items. But a peek toward the back reveals a bustling kitchen, and a quick turn to the right brings to light a large eating area. You’ll eat food here that is impossible to find at any other restaurant in Los Angeles, including an unmatched marisco, a morita chile pork rib, and a chicatana salsa that’s prepared to order with seasonal ants imported from Costa Chica.
Sabores Oaxaqueños used to be the site of L.A.’s most famous Oaxacan restaurant: Guelaguetza. The Granja brothers and one of their in-laws, Dominga Rodríguez, go way back with Guelaguetza. They purchased the restaurant in 2011 after Guelaguetza moved to a new and bigger location some blocks away.
For years, Dominga Rodríguez was a force behind Guelaguetza’s prize-winning moles. Guelaguetza arranged for her to come to the United States from Oaxaca, where she was running a kitchen in 1995. That had been a rough year after Dominga’s then-husband had an accident and the family was indebted to pay for hefty damages. She didn’t want to leave her three daughters behind, but she reluctantly agreed to come to Los Angeles for a short time to help Guelaguetza perfect its menu.
Dominga worked to pay off her family’s debt back home and the cost of her daughters’ educations when she arrived. What was originally a one-year commitment eventually turned into 15 years at Guelaguetza. They parted ways in 2009, and Dominga took her mole recipes with her. “More importantly,” she says, “I took my hands with me.” Today, Dominga’s hands produce Sabores Oaxaqueños mouthwatering moles as well as the restaurant’s tamales, which she makes in six flavors meticulously wrapped in banana leaves.
One of Dominga’s daughters, Analilia, is married to Sabores co-owner Valentín. Valentín started out as a dishwasher at Guelaguetza and eventually became its manager during the 16 years he worked there. Analilia helps run Sabores Oaxaqueños’ front of house, but she is also a medical doctor (Dominga put Analilia through school in Oaxaca).
And Valentín’s brother Germán has worked in restaurants since first coming to the U.S. in 1991. In fact, the Sabores co-owner still works shifts as a server at The Palm, the posh Downtown Los Angeles steakhouse. Germán said he uses the money he earns serving at The Palm to help finance Sabores Oaxaqueños, getting the place off the ground and running without so much as taking out a bank loan. Silvia, one of the Granja’s sisters, serves as the master salsa and caldo maker. Another one of Dominga’s daughters, Mónica, is in charge of purchasing and also specializes in making the restaurant’s chile relleno, which is made with Oaxacan chile de agua (it’s an ingredient you’ll have a difficult time finding around Los Angeles).
When Guelaguetza offered the Granja brothers the opportunity to take its former location and start a new restaurant, they asked Dominga for advice. “Do it,” she told them. “But make it Costa Chica style.” They heeded her word, right down to the sounds: Sabores Oaxaqueños plays Costa Chica music through its speakers (although live karaoke, teclados, and rancheras play some nights of the week as well). Sabores Oaxaqueños is now preparing the grand opening of a second location on Melrose near Western (it’s currently open as a to-go spot while they remodel and wait on final permits). In a sea of new and old Oaxacan restaurants in Koreatown, Sabores Oaxaqueños stands out the same way Costa Chica does in Mexico: embracing the indigenous ingredients and flavors of the earth and the coast.
Tlayudas, $9.95 - $14.95. Tlayudas consist of layers of ingredients served over crispy corn tortillas. The tortillas can be thin or thick, and small or gigantic—the size and thickness depends on the region. Sabores Oaxaqueños imports 100 thin tortillas from Costa Chica for their tlayudas every eight days. “The kind of firewood, cal, and climate in Los Angeles makes it impossible to make these kinds of tortillas here,” explains Germán Granja. In order to get the flavor they really wanted in their tlayudas, the restaurant employs workers in Oaxaca who source, make, and box up goods like tortillas de tlayuda, chocolate, and quesillo, sending it by plane to Tijuana, where the box is then picked up and delivered to Koreatown. The tlayudas at Sabores Oaxaqueños are topped with Oaxacan beans as well as meats that are exclusively cut and prepared for the restaurant. Meats, avocados, and tomatoes make it varied bite-to-bite, with an earthy flavor throughout.
Mole rojo, $13.95. Fifty years ago, Dominga Rodríguez’s grandmother, Otilia Vasquez Villareal, from Zaachila, Oaxaca, used to make this mole by hand grinding some 25 ingredients in a molcajete de piedra. Dominga learned the method as child and has been making it by memory ever since. Her mole rojo has a slight bit of heat. If you pay attention, you’ll taste hints of almonds and cinnamon layered into this mole rojo and swear it’s the best you’ve ever tasted. Order it with chicken or pork; either comes with a side of rice.
Chapulines, Chicatanas, and Salsa de Chicatana $8.95 - $12.00. Chapulines, grasshoppers from Central America, are now a rather easy delicacy to find around town. But chicatanas, a genus of ant that emerge during the summer rain season in Oaxaca, are rare in the United States. Sabores Oaxaqueños imports chicatanas from Costa Chica when they’re in season, and you can order them as a meal or buy them off the shelf to make at home for the next few weeks. Silvia Granja also makes a delectable salsa de chicatana to order. The pungent fragrance of roasted chicatanas gives way to a peppery, nutty, and indulgent salsa. While lots of salsas can be made to taste like the earth few, if any, will ever come close to this.
Tejate, $6. This frothy corn-and-cacao-based drink, passed down from the gods and made exclusively by women, is making rounds on some streets in Los Angeles. And the city plays host to an annual Feria del Tejate to celebrate and award the best tejate maker. Sabores Oaxaqueños is the only restaurant serving tejate in LA. Their batches exclusively are made by Señora Licha—she was the Feria del Tejate winner in 2016 and will compete again in a couple of months. Tejate relies on cacao flower, which typically blooms in summer, so arrive to the restaurant in the next few weeks if you want to sample this reviving drink of the gods.
Siete mares, $15.95. A taste of the world’s oceans in one bowl, this caldo features generous portions of fish, shrimp, crab legs, and clam. But what’s just as important is what isn’t in the caldo. “We don’t use carrot or celery in this,” says Silvia Granja. Sabores Oaxaqueños skips the European vegetable base for its siete mares, which makes for a somewhat brinier but surprisingly refreshing caldo. You get to garnish your own bowl: press a bit of lime to brighten up the stock, or incorporate some chiles to add heat.
Sabores Oaxaqueños is located at 3337 1/2 W 8th Street in Koreatown. Metered street parking, with valet available in the evenings. Free wifi, just ask for the password. (213) 427-3508
Aura Bogado is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in various publications including The Guardian, The Nation, Mother Jones, Salon, and Colorlines. She tweets at @aurabogado.