When my family and I visited Oaxaca in 2013, I had two items to check off my foodie bucket list: Learn to enjoy mezcal, the region’s premier, smoky agave spirit, and sample my first tlayuda. Tlayudas are a Oaxacan gastronomic specialty based on a large corn tortilla cooked over flame or on a comal then dried to a cracker-like crisp. The tortilla is topped with asiento (unrefined pork lard), refried black beans, cabbage, tomatoes and quesillo — string cheese from Oaxaca. Thin slices of tasajo (cured beef), cecina (cured pork), chicken or tangy Oaxacan chorizo can be added, based on preference.
At La Central, chefs Javier Plascencia and Alex Ruiz’s new seasonal pop-up in the Valle de Guadalupe, both of these goals can be achieved. Without having to travel to central Mexico. Here, one is easily transported to a fonda in rural Oaxaca vis-a-vis La Central’s delicious and authentic Oaxacan fare, the endemic folkloric music playing in the background and the temporary restaurant’s rustic appearance.
Oaxacan Cuisine in the Valle de Guadalupe
To those that have followed Plascencia’s career, it should come as no surprise that the chef has imported Oaxacan gastronomy to the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California’s wine country. After all, this is the man who brought modern Mexican and Sinaloa style mariscos (seafood) to Tijuana with Mision 19 and Erizo, respectively. And introduced Baja California campestre-style cooking to the Valle with his popular Finca Altozano. He’s also flirted with the varied regional cuisines of Mexico across a number of equally-varied projects in Baja California, the US and his home country
“We import ingredients from Oaxaca every week.”
La Central opened right after the announcement that this year’s Vendimia (wine harvest celebration) dinner at Finca Altozano will be a collaborative effort featuring chef Alex Ruiz, owner of the preeminent Casa Oaxaca in the city of the same name and one of Mexico’s staunchest promoters of Oaxacan cuisine. His knowledge of his state’s gastronomy and Plascencia’s pedigree as a restaurateur combine to deliver an excellent and wholly unique dining experience.
“Alex’s mother sends us a shipment of meats and other ingredients from Oaxaca every week,” Plascencia informed us during a recent visit. And the quality and authenticity of their tasajo, cecina and chorizo wouldn’t be out of place in that city’s famous Pasejo de Humo, a smoky passageway in the sprawling Mercado 29 de Noviembre where those savory comestibles are cured, displayed and served.
Tlayudas, Mezcal and More
These meats are put to good use with La Central’s superb tlayuda. The tlayuda itself is presented simply, with the required asiento, refried beans, quesillo and cabbage folded into the crispy corn tortilla. The tlayuda is accompanied by any combination of meats grilled in the restaurant’s outdoor kitchen. We enjoyed ours with savory cecina adobada – marinated in achiote, vinegar and chiles – tasajo, chorizo and grilled tripa (small intestine). All are perfectly seasoned and provide a not-so-subtle smoky hint of the wood fire over which they were cooked. Two salsas – a piquant salsa verde and a deep salsa molcajete – are on hand to apply an additional layer of flavor. It was one of the best dishes I’ve enjoyed in Baja California this year.
La Central’s tostada de insectos is another winning dish that pays homage to central and southern Mexico’s pre-Hispanic entomophagy — the practice of eating insects. Chapulines (fried grasshoppers) and chicatanas (flying ant midsections) are served atop a halved tlayuda with cilantro, sweet onions, radish and guacamole. It’s a light, tasty and textured affair and the perfect entrada before sampling the restaurant’s hardier menu items.
One of those items is the tamal Oaxaqueño, lovingly prepared with nixtamilzed (treated with lime before grinding) corn masa, then wrapped in banana leaves and filled with chicken bathed in a complex, profound and slightly sweet mole negro. Unwrapping the banana leaves to reveal the tamal is akin to opening a Christmas present — knowing something of intense desire is concealed within its layers. The first thing one notices is the unusual smoothness of the masa, typical of tamales in Oaxaca. “We use a lot of lard to achieve that,” Plascencia says. “It’s not something you would eat if you were on a diet.”
Simply Delicious Food
Before our visit, I’d asked an amigo who’d already visited La Central for his impression. “The food is really good, but simple,” he informed. That simplicity is the key ingredient here, where dishes are created without fuss or over-preparation. Their dessert of grilled plantains in a lemon cream is a practice in culinary restraint. It succeeds as the sweetness of the plantains blend perfectly with the tartness of the luxurious topping. This postre requires no further accoutrement.
“Simplicity is the key ingredient at La Central.”
All of the restaurant’s dishes can and should be washed down with La Central’s imported house mezcals of espadin, tepextate or madre cuishi or small batch, limited edition mezcals from Macuricho, a family-owned and operated palenque located in the Oaxacan countryside. A selection of Baja California wines and craft beers are also available, as are several excellent agua frescas such as jamaica (hibiscus) or a very good horchata (rice drink) with walnuts.
La Central is located in an unfinished structure in San Antonio de Las Minas, right next to winery Casa de Piedra and just below Plascencia’s boutique B&B, Finca la Divina. Once the pop-up has run its seasonal course, the chef has other plans for the space. “I might open a small restaurant, a coffee shop or a spa here,” he shares. But for now, it’s decomposed granite floor, outdoor kitchen and open doors and windows are an ideal spot in which to showcase the restaurant’s rustic cuisine and authentic Oaxacan flavors.
La Central is located at Carretera #3 Ensenada-Tecate at kilometer 93.5 in San Antonio de las Minas, 22761 Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. The restaurant will be open for roughly three months during the season, Tue-Sun from 11AM-8PM.
DISCLAIMER: Chef Javier Plascencia invited A Gringo in Mexico to La Central the evening before our visit. When we told the chef we already had lunch plans, he abruptly and knowingly suggested, “Cancel them.” Our meal at La Central was generously provided compliments of the chef and no other compensation was received for writing this review. We would happily, hungrily return for more Oaxacan cuisine on our own peso.