On a recent Friday, I brought a well-fed, well-traveled friend visiting Los Angeles to Poncho’s Tlayudas, a weekend Oaxacan pop-up in South Los Angeles that emerged from a two-week hiatus. years at the beginning of March. My friend had spent several days touring the newest and greatest restaurants in our town. Now he was clutching half a tlayuda. The folded and stuffed tortilla, straight off the grill, took both hands to wield. After a bite, his face twisted in wonder. “It’s the best thing I’ve eaten this week,” he said.
Yes. We all have places where we take people and say, “This is the Los Angeles that I love.” A few of mine include Mariscos Jalisco for the golden camarón tacos, Republic for pastries and Ototo for sake and fried snacks. A tlayuda con tres carnes at Poncho, now that it’s back, is also on the short list.
The tortillas that Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez uses to make his singular specialty come from Oaxaca, made by families who have been growing, grinding and nixtamalizing corn for generations. They’re about 14 inches, mostly uniform in size, but each etched with uniquely patterned edges — some burnt, some smooth, some jagged like mountain landscapes seen from afar.
Depending on the variety of corn, the color of the tortillas can be the inky blue or the faded pink of a favorite childhood t-shirt. The ones you see stacked under the red Poncho tent lately tend to be a creamy pale gold.
He begins to build a tlayuda by painting his tortilla web with asiento, a fresh, grilled lard that he makes himself. Its flavor is not too strong; it’s more of a bass booster to boost the other ingredients. He spreads on refritos – black beans simmered with garlic, onion and avocado leaves, mashed to a crispy mash, then sizzled in a pan with more garlic. Next is quesillo, Oaxacan cheese pulled into short strings and sprinkled with a wise hand.
Martinez or his grill 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 from the heat and breathes in some of the wood smoke. If you ordered the tres carnes option (and you should seriously think about it), Martinez or Vasquez will crumble on a generous blanket of chorizo. The shredded cabbage continues last, then the tlayuda is folded in half on the grill, reheated for a few more minutes and finally cut in half.
If you order the tlayuda with three meats, you’ll find alongside the miraculous moronga, its blood sausage (more details soon) and tasajo, a thin cut of hourglass-shaped flank steak. It’s pleasantly moist and satisfying to alternate with bites of sausage. Tlayudas can also be ordered with a meat – moronga, chorizo, or tasajo – and a fresh, light vegetarian version wraps chopped nopales and sometimes oyster mushrooms inside the tortilla.
Martinez’s masterpiece engages all the senses. You pick up a section of hot, fin-like tlayuda with your fingers dancing to avoid burning. The tortilla smells of corn warmed by the sun. Your eyes gauge the best starting point to dive; it is at the level of the fold that you will find a density of tastes and textures. A two-tone crack echoes in your jaw; your taste buds register the layers of spice and the earthy depths of the grains and threads of half-melted cheese. You are aware of your serene surroundings in a courtyard filled with shrubbery, in a grove of tables filled with diners in similar states of elation. But you’re also very focused on the tactile wonder that’s yours to savor.
Poncho’s Tlayuda has resumed regular hours after months of sporadic pandemic-related closures and Plan B experiments – largely due to the Oaxaca’s Crucial Ingredient Pipeline Is Drying Up when COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill in March 2020. I had gorged on Martinez’s tlayudas several times before the shutdown and enjoyed them immensely, but their reappearance reminds me how exceptional and vital they are to the city.
Los Angeles knows tlayudas, a specialty among many local expressions of Oaxacan cuisine. Southern California is home to the largest Oaxacan population outside of Mexico—about 150,000 to 300,000—including native Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mixes, and other groups. LA restaurants typically serve tlayudas open-faced, photogenic spheres drizzled with quesillo and arranged with slices of avocado and strips of nopales spinning concentrically, like spokes around a bicycle tire.
Martinez, who is Zapotec, grew up eating them grilled and folded by cooks in the central valleys of Oaxaca, where he grew up, which is how he prefers to serve them. His mastery of the tlayuda began as a backyard project around 2010 and, spurred on by the exclaiming reaction of friends, blossomed into a side gig to the restoration in 2012. Martinez and Odilia Romero, his wife and partner commercial, established Poncho’s Tlayudas as a regular popup in 2016. Soon posts like L.A. Tacos boasted of their transport qualities.
Moronga, the exceptional sausage, becomes a signature accompaniment. Learning the recipe was a wedding gift to Martinez from Romero’s father; its secrets have been passed down for four generations. Martinez always placed it on the side of the sliced tlayuda, rather than using it as a garnish; it lands in the mouth like a savory pudding, with a minty trillium of fresh yerba buena grown in a neighbor’s garden. The couple often joke that the moronga association with a tlayuda is pure Oaxacalifornia — fruit of their union and their common experience in the United States. Romero grew up in the highlands of Oaxaca, where tlayudas are not part of the repertoire, and never ate them until he arrived in Los Angeles.
Previously, the popup was set up in the backyard of a home along a block of South Main Street from which Romero currently runs CIELO, or Indigenous communities in Liderazgoa women-led organization focused on cultural programming that advocates for indigenous restaurant workers. (In an interview, Martinez and Romero talked about supporting farmers in Oaxaca as a way to support the region’s “corn economy.” It’s clear that their culinary and social justice efforts have a synergy.) customers sometimes complained that they couldn’t find the place. Now the grill and tables are set up in the front yard; even in the dark, there is no missing the road-facing sign mounted on the tent displaying the word “tlayudas” in rainbow colors.
Friday nights are the mainstay of Tlayudas de Poncho. Lately, when so many in the Zapotec community have gone meatless on Fridays for Lent, Martinez and his small team are making a second weekend appearance on Sunday afternoon. The turnout has been encouraging, so they’re making Sunday a stable thing. Check Instagram to make sure they are open.
When supplies of tlayudas were scarce, Martinez turned to making tamales de frijol wrapped in banana or avocado leaves. Through sponsorship, he recently received one of tamale carts designed by Richard Gomez of Revolution Carts, which is pre-licensed by the city for sale on the street. I had Martinez’s tamales during a string of restaurant closings in 2020 and they are wonderful, silky smooth and plant-based. But there is nothing like his tlayudas.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.