¡Sabor Gigante!

Where to find Seattle's best, er, only tlayudas and pambazos.

Ask anyone in Oaxaca City where you should go for a tlayuda, and they'll tell you Libres Street, but only after 10 o'clock at night. And where on Libres, you'll ask? Oh, they'll say, "just mention that you're looking for the best tlayudas in Oaxaca." Oaxaca's quintessential street food, a tlayuda is a pizza-sized tortilla, griddled until it's crisp and covered in lard, refried black beans, lettuce, and shredded quesillo cheese. Passersby will direct you down narrow, barely lit streets to one of Libres Street's nameless late-night stalls, where a weathered, solid woman stands over a pit of coals, fanning the flames with one hand and flipping tlayudas and slices of chile-rubbed pork with the other. In the unlikely event that anyone should ask you where to go in Seattle for a tlayuda, tell them they can only find one before 4 p.m. at downtown's El Sabor de Oaxaca. It's one of two new restaurants specializing in regional Mexican street snacks you won't find at any other taqueria in the city. Earlier this year, Oaxacans Alejandro Sanchez and Gabriel Jimenez took over the old Jalapeño Express, renaming the place and supplementing its burrito-chimichanga menu with Oaxacan dishes whose ingredients they import from their native city. Their tlayuda ($9.95) is big enough for two, and while it may not be the most savory dish you'll ever try, it's certainly fascinating. You conquer the thing bit by bit, breaking off pieces of the light, crispy shell and capturing hunks of tazajo (dried and then grilled beef) and avocado with every bite. Underneath the quesillo, vegetables, and meat, you'll taste asiento. A mash of meat and lard, it's essence de porc, and the day I finally give in to my flab, I'll buy a gallon to spread on my breakfast toast. You can also taste the imported quesillo, a slightly tangy string cheese sold wrapped into balls, in El Sabor's lovely tortas Oaxaqueñas, along with chicken, all the regular torta fixin's, and a tangy, smoky chipotle cream sauce. In addition, Sanchez and Jimenez bring in black mole paste from Oaxaca, which they serve over chicken ($9.95), and it's more biting and less like hot fudge sauce than the Puebla-style mole that you've eaten all your life. If you're just in the mood for a snack, order some homemade corn tortillas, refritos, and the owners' other Oaxacan import: a bowl of chapulines ($3.50). Tiny fried grasshoppers dressed in salt, lime, and chile, they go perfectly with beer. Just south, on Beacon Hill, El Quetzal advertises antojitos chilangos, or Mexico City snacks: the huarache, the pambazo, and the quesadilla. All gigante-sized. Owners Juan and Helena Montiel, who moved here from the Distrito Federal seven years ago, have sponge-painted their tiny restaurant Starburst colors—grapefruit pink, lime green, and banana yellow. The friendly couple works morning to night six days a week, and their small children occasionally rocket out of the back, careen around the room, and vanish. The best, and six-napkin sloppiest, pambazo I've ever eaten left a burning red ring around my mouth; on the messiness scale, Quetzal's respectably tasty pambazo ($7.75) scores about three napkins. Juan Montiel dips a football-sized roll in an ancho chile salsa to coat the bread, then griddles it and packs it with long-cooked potatoes and sausage, shredded lettuce, and lots of sour cream. Huaraches ($7.50) take their name and shape from the traditional Mexican sandal. Quetzal's foot model must be a size 25; the 16-inch corn cake is spread with salsa, a fine layer of refried beans, and your choice of topping—sautéed mushrooms, chorizo and cactus, or skirt steak—with enough lettuce to camouflage it all. Big flavor is added in the form of fine squiggles of sour cream over the top and a shower of salty, white cotija cheese, the Parmesan of Mexico. No cheese bomb, El Quetzal's quesadilla ($7.50) is a gigante, almost translucent made-to-order corn tortilla folded into a half-moon, stuffed with a little cheese and a lot of chipotle-sauced pork cracklings or chicken, then fried until papery crisp. Chances are, it's like no quesadilla you've seen in the States—and, if yours is as good as mine was, you won't be looking at it for long. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

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