Tlayudas, according to people more expert than I, are unique to Oaxaca. Before I came, I learned that they’re very large hand-made corn tortillas, the size of a dinner plate, but different in texture from even your toastiest tortilla. Like much street food here, it’s largely available as a nighttime snack. They might encase meat or cheese or both, and they are grilled over charcoal. I was utterly entranced. “Are they like huaraches?”, I asked my homestay family within days of getting here. “No, not really,” was the short reply since at that point, I couldn’t understand them if they had said much more.
But after two weeks in Oaxaca, I still hadn’t had a chance to try one because I was so busy eating at home. The other night, for my “light evening meal,” I had tortillas fried up in black bean sauce with queso fresco and thin rings of white onions. I could probably eat a bowlful of Patty’s beans every night. I was so sad the night Patty was late getting home and Betty, her mother, made me a ham and American cheese sandwich.
I’d managed to squeeze in a little bit of street food here and there: an “empanada” which is more like a tortilla folded in half in American terms, with flor de calabeza (squash blossoms) and quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese); the esquite and elote with salt, lime, chili, queso fresco, and mayonnaise; a couple of tacos at the Friday tianguis (indigenous market) while another American student looked on, expecting me to keel over from food poisoning any moment; and a cup of tejate, a drink made of corn, mamey, chocolate, and the rosita cacao flower. But no tlayudas, at least not until this past Friday night.
For two weeks, I took notes. When Soledad, my cooking teacher, mentioned a favorite street corner for tlayudas, I painstakingly wrote it down: Libres y Abasola. But when it finally came to actually walking and finding a tlayuda, I chose the Tlayuderia Las Reliquias, which a chowhound had described with loud, loving authority.
The menu listed four ingredients from which you can make any combination: tasajo, cecina, chorizo, and quesillo. It’s a good thing I have no dietary restrictions, because I often find out what something is only after I order it. “One tlayuda with tasajo and quesillo, please.” At least I knew how much it cost, 33 pesos.
As promised, the restaurant was in the open courtyard of the family’s home. They had placed a couple of plastic tables and chairs, the kind you see at bare-bones seaside resorts, in the center of the courtyard, but all around, you could see open doors with furniture, a set of swings and a slide, a typewriter hanging on the wall in a very bohemian-artsy way, and a bright yellow punching bag, just a few feet from the grill.
When I first saw my tlayuda, I almost died. It was the size of a dinner plate all right, the modern gigantic size of dinner plate that makes Americans eat too much and become obese. The guy who took my order, both waiter and cook that night, spread (beans) thinly all over it and set it aside while the tasajo, which turned out to be thinly sliced beef, got cooked on the grill. The tasajo, the stringy quesillo, and a fair amount of cabbage slaw got folded into the tlayuda, and the whole thing was then set on the grill to meld together.
When it arrived at my table, it was even bigger than I’d remembered. Finally, the moment had arrived. I was going to eat a tlayuda.
Oooohhhhh…it was a disappointment. I enjoyed the texture of the tlayuda, the combination of leathery and crunchy, because the outer layers of the tlayuda puff and crumble as it sits on the grill. I loved the stringy Oaxacan cheese called quesillo, which is like an adult version of the string cheese I loved as a child. The salsas the tlayuda came with were powerful. But I felt like all I could taste was smoke, and the beans weren’t assertive enough to balance the smokiness.
Luckily, a few days later, I had another tlayuda for breakfast at Café los Cuiles, the other wireless internet place in town. For 35 pesos, or less than $3.50, I got a cup of Oaxacan coffee, some fruit salad, and another giant tlayuda with beans, quesillo, avocado and tomato. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to give the famed tlayuda another chance, I just wasn’t interested in scrambled eggs or the “whole wheat Belgian waffle.”
It turned out Oaxacan coffee, if Café los Cuiles serves a representative one, is the color of tea and has cinnamon sticks floating in it. Fine if you don’t expect it to be coffee. But the tlayuda was tasty! Made on a coffee shop hot plate, it couldn’t have the full crunchy texture of the first tlayuda, but the beans were saltier, and the avocado and tomato added an important textural and tangy dimension.
Such a relief. I would have been devastated otherwise.