Monday, September 22, 2008

The Exquisite Heat of Oaxaca - Monte Alban

One of the nicest things to have is a good comfort food restaurant; a local spot that you know can provide good meals at fair prices. It's something that's easily taken for granted, but something that should be cherished as well. Here in Southern California, not only do we have a plenty of good, ol' American comfort food restaurants, but also a bounty of ethnic eateries providing wonderful permutations. And for Mexican cuisine, Monte Alban is one of the most popular choices.

Over the last half-year that I've visited Monte Alban, it has consistently provided a good "go-to" restaurant when you're in the mood for tasty comfort food, and the fact that it specializes in cuisine from the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, makes it that much more endearing.

One of my favorite drinks is Horchata (a sweet Rice-based drink), and Monte Alban serves up 2 versions, a straight Horchata and the Horchata Con Nieve (Home-made Rice drink with Cactus Sorbet), which is a fresh, house-made version, complete with Walnuts and some scoops of a Sorbet made from Cactus. It's refreshingly sweet, without being saccharin.

Besides the Horchata, Monte Alban offers a really nice variety of drinks, including a newfound favorite: Agua De Tuna (Juice of Fresh Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit). When the juice first arrived, I was struck by the beautiful color, and then worried it was all food-coloring, but relieved to find out that that was the actual, all-natural color of the Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit. It had a great Melon taste, a hint of Watermelon flavors with something distinctly unique, and with a light sweetness that was never too cloying.

Monte Alban has a really nice variety of Oaxacan Appetizers (Antojitos Oaxaquenos) that goes beyond the standard mainstream selections. Over my multiple visits, we've tried a variety of their specialties. On one of my earliest visits, we ordered their Tamal De Mole (Steamed Corn Dough with Chicken and Black Mole (pronounced "Mo-Leh") Sauce).

Their Tamal De Mole is much larger than the usual Tamale found at many local restaurants, served wrapped in a Banana Leaf. Monte Alban's version is striking visually and taste-wise, with nice chunks of Chicken and their Black Mole Sauce, which really adds a good spicy, smoky and sweet facet to the dish.

Another excellent Appetizer is the Empanada De Flor De Calabaza (Grilled Turnover with Squash Blossoms, Oaxacan Cheese, Mushrooms, Molcajete Salsa). Like the Tamal, Monte Alban's version of the Empanada isn't the usual preparation (in this case, it's not baked or fried), but a grilled version, and from my first visit and on, it's been a good way to start a meal. :)

One of the things I enjoy about their grilled version is that it's a lot less oily and heavy than many versions. The Squash Blossoms are wonderful with the Oaxacan Cheese and Mushrooms, and the Molcajete Salsa adds a good spiciness.

One note is that Monte Alban's "Tacos" are different from the usual small street tacos found at taco trucks around L.A.: They are served with a huge Corn Tortilla. I found their Taco De Cecina (Taco with Marinated Pork Leg Meat) to be a nice variation on Al Pastor or Adobada. Their Cecina Pork is a lot more spicy and smoky than Al Pastor or Adobada, and the meat has been decent (usually moist, but sometimes a touch too dry for my tastes).

But perhaps my favorite appetizer on their menu is the Taco De Barbacoa (Hand-made Corn Tortilla with Goat Meat, Onions, Cabbage, Cilantro). It's always nice to find a place serving Barbacoa de Chivo (Goat), and Monte Alban's version is really flavorful and tender. They take the Goat and wrap it with a special type of Hoja De Aguacate (Avocado Leaves), spices, and Avocado Root, before cooking everything together, giving it a really delightful, earthy, fragrant goodness. It's tied with La Morenita for my favorite version of this dish. :)

One Entree that's nice as an Appetizer to share with the table is their Clayuda Cecina, a Toasted 11" House-Made Corn Tortilla with Marinated Pork Leg Meat, Black Bean Paste, Lettuce, Tomato, Avocado, Salsa, Cabbage, Cilantro and Cheese, almost like a "Mexican Pizza" in a way.

The Clayuda Cecina is interesting, fun and so tasty! :) The super-thin, cracker-like crust is a great texture contrast with the rest of the ingredients. The fresh Cabbage, Avocado, Tomatoes and Cilantro, really add a great Spring-like feel to each bite, and a great counterpoint to the fresh-made Black Bean paste, and strips of Marinated Pork Leg. The Marinated Pork is lightly spicy, and works well here. My only complaint is that they don't provide enough meat. (Note: You can also order the Clayuda with Quesillo (Oaxacan-style String Cheese), Tazajo (Salted Round Beef), Pollo (Chicken), or Chorizo (Pork Sausage).)

But perhaps the most famous dish at Monte Alban is their Mole Negro dinner (Chicken Breast covered with their famous Oaxacan Black Mole Sauce, served with White Rice). Their Mole Negro is made up of 30 different spices(!), Seeds, Herbs and Chocolate, as well as extensive toasting of 5 special Chiles. Our waitress would only divulge three of them to us when we asked: Chile Ancho, Uajillo and Molato Chile. :)

The first time I ordered it, I was struck by just how truly *complex* their Mole Negro Sauce was: It was smoky sweet, yet still giving off slightly bitter notes (in a good way), and it had a nice, subtle heat that built up ever so slightly while you were eating it. If you've never had Mole Sauce before, this is a great starter. The only problem I have with this plate is their Chicken Breast: Since Monte Alban serves 5 different types of Mole, for the sake of flexibility, they boil / cook their Chicken Breast separately, and then top it with the Mole Sauce of your choice. This leads to the inside of the Chicken being rather plain, and forcing you to dip the simply boiled Chicken Breast into the Mole Sauce around the dish as you eat. But the Sauce is strong enough and plentiful enough for the meal, but I feel it would taste much better if the meat was cooked with the Mole.

There are many varieties of Mole from Oaxaca, and Monte Alban serves up 5 of them. On another visit, we tried their Estofado De Pollo (Chicken Breast covered with Estofado Mole (Tomato-based Mole Sauce), served with White Rice). While I enjoyed the Mole Negro dish previously, after having their Estofado Mole, it quickly became my new favorite! :)

Their Estofado Mole has a Tomato base, but they also use Raisins, Olives, Sesame Seeds, Almonds, Walnuts and Bananas, in addition to other spices. The result is something more naturally sweet than the Black Mole Sauce (which has a more Chocolate edge), while still having a good savory facet. Like the Mole Negro dish, they serve this with Boiled Chicken Breast (separately cooked) with the sauce quickly poured on top. It was still very tasty, but the dish would've benefited if the Chicken were cooked with the Mole for a little bit of time at least.

Another famous Mole Sauce at Monte Alban is their Coloradito (Chicken Breast covered with Oaxacan Red Mole Sauce, served with White Rice). This Red Mole Sauce is more akin to their Mole Negro, except that instead of the 5 heavily toasted Chiles as the base, Monte Alban uses 3 untoasted Chiles as the center - Guajillo, Chile Ancho, Chile Morita - and no Chocolate.

Their Coloradito / Red Mole turned out to be surprisingly sweeter than the Mole Negro Sauce, but not as smoky or complex. It had a slightly spicier burn, but still mellow. This was my least favorite of the Mole Sauces at Monte Alban.

Their Amarillo De Res (Yellow Mole Sauce with Chunky Beef and White Rice) is amazing! Their Yellow Mole is created using Hoja de Yerba Santa (Yerba Santa Leaf) as the base, with Pepper, Cumin, Dried Chiles and about 10 Spices (versus the 30 Spices in the Black Mole). The result is so light and airy, almost like a Consomme base! But the Amarillo also has the spiciest, direct heat, but it's not "hot for hot's sake": There's a beautiful, immediate spiciness that tastes natural. When combined with their Beef, it's a great contrast to their other Mole dishes. (^_^)

Finally, their Verde De Puerco (Green Mole Sauce over Pork Leg Meat with White Rice) turned out to be the best surprise.

Monte Alban's Green Mole Sauce is made with Hoja De Epazote (Epazote Leaf), Mejorana, Oregano, Tomatillo, Green Tomatoes and Cumin, along with other fresh herbs, and I found this and the Amarillo (Yellow) Mole to be my new favorites (beating out the Tomato Mole :). This is most savory of all the Mole Sauces at Monte Alban, with an absolutely exquisite heat that builds in this dish. It's less in-your-face than the Yellow Mole, but still stronger than the other 3. Like the Yellow Mole, I tasted an almost Consomme note, but more herbally and just beautifully paired with the Stewed Pork.

From the first time I stepped inside, I could tell this was a good, relaxing local eatery: A simple, homely interior, with all the tables decorated with traditional manteles-type table cloth. Service has been consistently good for a comfort food restaurant, no complaints. We average about ~$17 - 20 per person (including tax and tip), depending on the Appetizers and Entrees ordered.

Ultimately, Monte Alban is a nice neighborhood eatery, focusing on good Oaxacan comfort food. From the tasty, refreshing Drinks like their Cactus Fruit Juice, to their nice variety of unique Appetizers, to their 5 complex and standout Mole Sauces, Monte Alban delivers. It may not be as fancy and creative as
Babita (which is great in its own right (^_~)), but when you're in the mood for something more down-to-earth, Monte Alban is a good choice for tasty comfort food.

Rating: 7.9 (out of 10.0)

Monte Alban
11929 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tel: (310) 444-7736

Hours: Mon - Fri, 8:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 8:00 a.m. - 12:00 Midnight


Jigsaw Records said...

Wow, such vibrant pictures! Will definitely add on the 'to try' list.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Jigsaw,

Thanks. :) Please report back if you end up going. Enjoy~

g said...

Wow. I love Monte Alban, but I tend to eat my favorites, instead of trying more on the menu. Now I'll be more adventurous! This is a fantastic write-up.

Found your blog through Chowhounds. You're in my bookmarks now!!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi g,

Thanks for your kind comments. :) Yah, there are still many wonderful-sounding items on Monte Alban's menu that I haven't tried yet, either. Take care~

ChristianZ said...

Just drove by this place about a week ago and took a picture from my car.

Food, she thought. said...

I hear so many raves for Monte Alban, I wish it wasn't so far away from me.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food, she thought,

Monte Alban is pretty good; perhaps you can incorporate it into a day visiting Santa Monica for other destinations as well? (^_~)

Or you can try out Babita if that's closer to you. :)

Anonymous said...

Your review is spot in - the chicken can be dry once you run out of mole, which is why we prefer Guelaquetza for mole. But Monte Alban has so many other choices that are excellent, it hardly matters.

But for the best chile relleno in town, El Texate wins hands down!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for the comments and recommendations. :) Guelaquetza is on my list of "must try places." :)

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