The REAL Mexican Pizza: ¡Clayúdame!

Categories: Dueling Dishes
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Dave Lieberman

Forget about that offensive piece of garbage that passes for a Mexican pizza at Taco Bell. There's a much better "Mexican pizza" out there, and it's all thanks to the culinary geniuses in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca (say "wah-HAH-kah").

The Oaxacans have one of the proudest culinary traditions in all of Mexico, and their food is actually fairly available in OC, at least west of the 55 freeway. One of their late-night snacks is a huge crispy tortilla called a clayuda (or tlayuda), spread with black bean paste, then topped with cheese, cabbage, and a large hunk of the meat of your choice: tasajo (salted, dried beef skirt steak), cecina enchilada (pork leg that has been marinated in chiles and dried), or chorizo (spicy sausage). It often comes with sliced avocado and tomato.

A clayuda sencilla is a clayuda with no meat. It's still topped with a small mountain of the amazing Oaxacan string cheese called quesillo, which makes everything better. Screw pizza; a clayuda sencilla is where it's at.

Bite into the clayuda and you'll notice a funky, wild taste underlying the dish and making it even more delicious than it was before: this is aciento, the unrefined "dark" lard with tiny bits of brown meat that comes from rendering pork fat. A thin layer is spread on the tortilla before the bean paste is added. It doesn't taste porky at all; it adds an undertone, like fish sauce in Thai food.

The standard recommendation for Oaxacan food in OC is El Fortin in Fullerton, a square room on the edge of a minimall that contains more than its share of storefront churches. You'll know it by the crowd of bicycles outside the labor clearinghouse next door.

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Dave Lieberman
The clayuda at El Fortin seemed tired; crispy in parts, but unappealingly soggy elsewhere. It was topped with both queso fresco (farmer's cheese) and quesillo, but there were no vegetables other than shredded cabbage to be seen, no avocado or tomato to decorate the top; these come only with the clayuda especial (with all three meats). The aciento and bean paste were slightly gritty, but the quesillo was high quality. The salsa was the star, slightly oily, smoky, with a reasonable but meaningful heat.

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Dave Lieberman
The other clayuda came from El Moctezuma in Santa Ana, one of a trio of Oaxacan restaurants in north-central county. The Santa Ana branch is tucked away in a hidden corner of the usual tired minimall on the corner of Fairview and Civic Center. It's tired on the inside too, but busy: it's obviously a popular place.

The clayuda was perfectly crispy, the aciento was assertive, the beans were really well-spiced, and there was an abundance of tomato and avocado on the dish, decent quesillo, but not enough cabbage to provide the required soft crunch. The salsa was quite good, but a little bit thin; El Fortin's was better.

All things considered, though, if I were hankering for a clayuda, it'd be El Moctezuma's I headed for. No matter where you go for your Mexican pizza, though, make sure you order horchata; Oaxacan horchata, with prickly pear syrup, chopped nuts and melon, is like no other on earth.

El Fortin, 700 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton; (714) 773-4290.
El Fortin, 10444 Dale Ave., Stanton; (714) 252-9120.
El Moctezuma, 809 N. Fairview St., Santa Ana; (714) 648-0402.
El Moctezuma, 12531 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove; (714) 658-8482.
El Moctezuma, 1740 W. Chapman Ave., Orange; (714) 456-0080.

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