It was one of the longest trips I have ever taken for a meal. One hour-long taxi ride, one delayed five-and-a-half hour flight, and one excruciatingly slow encounter with a Cheech lookalike rental car attendant at LAX later, I was finally on the road in LA. The sun was setting. I hadn't eaten since JFK. After a harrowing trip up the 405, I finally reached my destination, a restaurant heretofore unknown. This.
My first thought was: WTF? A ten-hour trip for this? Some LA Chowhounders had tipped me off to Monte Alban. Maybe they were smoking crack. Supposedly this exterior in a strip mall hid some of the best Oaxacan-style Mexican in all of LA. But Monte Alban looked just like a multitude of strip mall taco places I'd already passed on the way.
My friend and fellow WASP was already inside, seated in a room with an elaborate mural of a Mexican village painted on one wall. "I think they seated me in the gringo section," she said, sipping her Negro Modela and looking around at the lone other diner on that side of the restaurant, who was also quite white.
Never mind. According to the menu, the place served food, and I was starved. I started ordering.
"I think you have too much food..." The mustachioed waiter's pen hesitated on his note pad. I kept ordering.
The food, when it arrived, was a revelation. The chorizo on the perfectly crisp tostada was almost fluffy, it was so light and crumbly. Spicy, but also faintly sweet. Ten hours was beginning to seem more reasonable already.
It was difficult to imagine what the empanada de cuitlacoche with mushrooms and Oaxacan cheese would taste like, and it's even harder to describe. The densely packed, sauteed mushrooms inside have an mysterious, earthy smokiness that was drawn out by the cuitlacoche and cheese. It serves as a nice reminder that true Mexican food is comprised of tastes that are truly, mesmerizingly foreign.
At one point, a small piece of the tamal de mole appetizer fell on the wooden chair, and I almost picked it up and ate it rather than let the tiniest piece of it go to waste, it was so delicious. (I like to think this says more about Monte Alban's mole than about me.) When we unwrapped the banana leaf, the tamal we found inside had a molten brownie texture layered with chunks of stewed chicken. Again there was that mystery, this time in the mole. It was chocolate, but it was not. And the tamale itself was like the lightest, airiest corn crepe. The hot tortillas that came later were the freshest I'd ever had, with an almost spongy texture, as if they'd been made with seltzer water. Rarely do you find such delicacy and such earthiness in the same restaurant.
Going on LA Chowhound recommendations, I chose the barbacoa de chivo, the goat soup. It looks very simple: hunks of meat in a broth so dark it's almost opaque, which you then top with shredded cabbage, chopped onion and a little green salsa, as I have here. But the flavor is many things at once: mesquite barbecue, the silkiness of a little bit of fat without the oiliness, and then an almost osso buco undertone. Picking out the bones from the meat, it was clear why: the bones were goat vertebrae, cloven to pieces and left to stew for hours.
Tortilla soup was something my fellow WASP and I had experienced in college: it was served for lunch when the dining hall really wanted to walk on the wild side. Needless to say, Monte Alban's was better, spicy but with real legs to walk on. Instead of a watery broth, this was a deeply chicken-y soup piled with at least two kinds of cheese.
Monte Alban is a Mexican restaurant of many moles. There is red mole, yellow mole, and even the tomato mole that dressed the estofado de pollo. This dish was a little bit girly, sugar and spice and everything nice. The generous dose of cinnamon in the sauce reminded me of a milder sort of Indian food: gentle, delicate, and inoffensive.
Halfway through the main courses, we were already stuffed and the mustachioed waiter was shaking his head at our foolhardiness. The remainders of goat, chicken, and tortilla soup were packed into to-go containers. There would be no room for plantains. The check? Forty-five dollars for two.
By now the room was filled with all sorts of diners, not just gringos like us. Many of them knew the staff and said their goodbyes on the way out. If I lived in LA, I would want to be a Monte Alban regular too.
11929 Santa Monica Boulevard, between Bundy and Barrington