Review: Poncho’s Tlayudas serves one of L.A.’s defining dishes

On a recent Friday, I took an extensive, well-fed friend visiting Los Angeles to Poncho’s Tlayudas, an Oaxacan weekend pop-up in South LA that has resurfaced. after a two-year hiatus in early March. My friend spent a few days circling our city’s newest and greatest restaurants. Now he was clutching half of a tlayuda. The tortilla is folded and stuffed, taken straight from the grill, using both hands to handle. After taking a bite, his face contorted in surprise. “This is the best I have eaten this week,” he said.

Right. We all have places where people say, “This is the Los Angeles I love.” Some of mine include Mariscos Jalisco for tacos dorados de camarón, République for pastries and Ototo for sake and fried snacks. A tlayuda con tres carnes at Poncho’s, now back, is also on the short list.

Alfonso "poncho" Martinez, wearing black-rimmed glasses and a black Tlayudas by Poncho.

Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez of Poncho’s Tlayudas.

(Paul Argumedo / For The Times)

The corn tortillas that Alfonso “Poncho” Martinez use to make his unique specialty come from Oaxaca, made by families that have grown, milled and ripened corn for generations. They are about 14 inches in size, mostly uniform in size but each is engraved with uniquely patterned edges – some veined, some smooth, some jagged like a mountain landscape viewed from afar .

Depending on the type of corn, the color of the cake can be the ink blue or the pale pink of a favorite childhood t-shirt. The ones you see stacked up in Poncho’s red shack lately tend to be creamy yellow.

He started creating a demon by painting his tortilla canvas with asiento, a fresh, grilled lard that he made himself. Its taste is not too loud; it’s like a bass booster to amplify other components. He spreads the dishes – black beans simmered with garlic, onions and avocado leaves, kneaded into a smooth paste and then sautéed in a pan with more garlic. Next comes the quesillo, Oaxacan cheese that is pulled into short strands and sprinkled with a deft hand.

Martinez or his griller, Alberto Vasquez, will place the round tlayuda on a charcoal grill. The tortilla, hard after its long journey, softened and then crispy from the heat and inhaled some of the forest smoke. If you’ve ordered the tres carnes option (and you should think twice), Martinez or Vasquez will crumble on a generous chorizo ​​blanket. The shredded cabbage is chopped last, and then the barracuda is doubled on the grill, warmed for a few more minutes, and finally halved.

Martinez uses tongs to lift a mixta tlayuda off the grill.

Martinez baked a tlayuda mixta over mesquite.

(Paul Argumedo / For The Times)

If you order a three-meat tlayuda, next to it will be the magical moronga, his blood sausage (more on that later) and tasajo, a thin, almost hourglass-shaped steak. . It was chewy and satisfying when interspersed with pieces of sausage. Tlayudas can also be ordered with a meat – moronga, chorizo ​​or tasajo – and a light, fresh vegetarian version with chopped eggs and sometimes oyster mushrooms inside a tortilla.

Tongue lifts the top of a vegetarian tlayuda over the grill, revealing the cheese and shredded sardines inside.

A vegetarian tlayuda.

(Paul Argumedo / For The Times)

Martinez’s skillful technique draws all senses into the game. You pick up a portion of the hot fin-shaped tlayuda with dancing fingers so as not to burn. Sun-baked corn tortillas. Your eyes judge the best starting point to dive into; it’s right in the folds where you’ll find the density of tastes and textures. A two-toned crackle resounds in your jaw; Your taste buds note the spice layer and earthy depth from the peas and half melted cheese. You are aware of the peaceful surroundings around you in a bush-filled courtyard, in a grove of trees filled with diners in a similar state of elation. But you are also very focused on the tactile wonder that only you enjoy.

Poncho’s Tlayudas continued to operate steadily for hours after months of sporadic pandemic-related shutdowns and Plan B experiments – largely due to the pipeline draining of critical Oaxacan ingredients in the wake of COVID -19 pauses the world in March 2020. I wanted to eat Martinez’s toys a few times before shutting down and enjoyed them, but their reappearance reminds me that they are special and How important it is to the city.

Los Angeles is known for its tlayudas, a specialty among the many local expressions of Oaxacan cuisine. Southern California is home to the largest Oaxacan population outside of Mexico – an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 residents – including indigenous Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mixes, and other groups. LA restaurants often serve faceless tlayudas, in the guise of photogenic spheres covered with quesillos and arranged with sliced ​​avocados and nopal strips that spin concentrically, like spokes around bicycle tires.

Martinez, a Zapotec, grew up eating tlayudas baked by chefs and folded by chefs in Oaxaca’s Central Valley, where he grew up, so he prefers serving them. His mastery of tlayuda began as a backyard project around 2010 and, spurred by a rave reviews from friends, evolved into a side gig in 2012. Martinez and Odilia Romero , his wife and business partner, founded Poncho’s Tlayudas as a regular pop-up store in 2016. Soon after, publications like LA Taco praised their shipping qualities.

Moronga, the special blood sausage, has become an accompanying signature. The recipe was a wedding gift for Martinez from Romero’s father; Its secrets have been passed down through four generations. Martinez always puts it next to sliced ​​tlayuda, instead of using it as a filling; It appears on the palate like a savory pudding, with mint flavors from fresh yerba buena grown in the neighbor’s garden. The pair often joke that pairing a moronga with a tlayuda is purebred Oaxacalifornia – the result of their cooperation and sharing of experiences in the United States. Romero grew up in the highlands of Oaxaca, where tlayudas were not in the repertoire and had never eaten one until she arrived in Los Angeles.

In the past, pop-ups were set up in the backyard of a house along the Main Street block, where Romero now runs CIELO, or the Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo, a women-led organization focused on the program. Cultural program also favors local restaurant workers. (In an interview, Martinez and Romero talked about supporting Oaxacan farmers as a way to support the area’s “corn economy. Now grills and tables are located in the front yard; even in the backyard.” In the dark, the street sign above the tent is indispensable, flashing the word “tlayudas” in the seven colors of the rainbow.

An exposed tlayuda on the grill, a tortilla topped with asiento, small donuts refritos, cabbage and meats.

Martinez’s tlayuda starts with a tortilla, topped with asiento, followed by assorted refritos, cabbage, and meats, such as shredded chorizo.

(Paul Argumedo / For The Times)

Friday nights are prime time for Poncho’s Tlayudas. Recently, with so many in the Zapotec community going meat-free on Fridays during Lent, Martinez and his small group showed up for a second weekend on Sunday afternoons. Voter turnout is encouraging, so they’re making Sunday a stabilizing thing. Check Instagram to make sure they’re open.

When supplies of tlayudas were scarce, Martinez turned to tamales de frijol wrapped in banana leaves or avocado leaves. Through a grant, he was recently given one of the tamales designed by Richard Gomez of Revolution Carts, pre-licensed by the city for street vending. I enjoyed Martinez’s tamales during a restaurant closure in 2020 and they were amazing, silky and herbal. But nothing like his tlayudas.

Poncho’s Tlayudas

4318 S. Main St., Los Angeles, (213) 359-0264,

Price: Tlayudas $15-$20

Details: Open from 5-9:30 p.m. Friday and sometimes Sunday starting at 10 a.m. No alcohol. Street parking.

Recommended dishes: Tlayuda con tres carnes Review: Poncho’s Tlayudas serves one of L.A.’s defining dishes

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