El Tejate: How People Ate Before the Conquistadors

Co-owner Simon shows off "gusanos de maguey" (worms).
  • Co-owner Simon shows off "gusanos de maguey" (worms).

El Tejate Oaxacan Restaurant

205 West Mission Avenue, Suite R, Escondido

This little guy was singing a few days ago. Now, crunch. One ex-grasshopper.

We’re talking chapulines. Fried and dropped on a big white plate. A delicacy from Oaxaca, southern Mexico. The taste? Salty, with a slightly vinegary, aftertaste of…what? The cellulose of its armor plating?

Sitting next to the chapulines is a sample plate of the gusanos, the maguey worms that live and eat in the maguey plant — as in agave, as in tequila. They’re slightly crisp and taste of, well, agave; that olive-oily tequila taste. Man. Cerveza would go down well with both these guys. I’m sitting at a big chunky wooden table with these first two plates of my Oaxacan dinner.

Unfortunately, El Tejate — this little jewel of a place in a modest strip mall up here in Escondido — doesn’t have a liquor license yet. I spotted it while walking down West Mission Avenue toward the transit center and the hour-and-a-half trip back down south. It was about 7:00, and I needed something to keep me going.

Through the door (“Barbecued Lamb, Saturdays and Sundays,” it says on a sign Scotch-taped to the glass), I saw a whole bunch of people crowding a long table, like they were here to celebrate. Could be fun, I thought. So I swung through into a bright place with a dozen tables. The walls are painted orange and red, with royal-blue timbers and brick skirting. Large tourism posters of Oaxaca brighten things even more. In the back, playing on a TV next to the kitchen, a woman in a telenovela weeps.

The group is sitting at a table in the middle. I take one on the side. Next table over, a gal’s ordering from the menu, talking to the little lady who seems to run this place. “Tlayuda con asiento y quesillo,” the gal reads, “…empanada con pollo de mole amarillo…” Lord. Is she ordering everything? I wonder.

A moment later, the lady — Lucy, her name is (turns out she’s the co-owner) — brings me chips, a yellow salsa, and a six-page menu. Where to begin? For starters, I look up the tlayuda. Word rings a bell. Ah, yes…I remember it from hanging out at Mercado Hidalgo in Tijuana. It’s a big, wide, pizza-size tortilla, crisp and smeared with pork lard, yummy in itself, but then they add refried beans and strew Oaxacan string cheese on top, and chorizo, pork, beef jerky (tasajo), or chicken. That costs $9.50. They have tacos with the same choice of meats for $2.50. Even with dishes you recognize, there’s a Oaxacan touch. Like the plate of tamales ($6.50): they’re wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks.

“Oaxacan tamales are made of thinner masa,” says Bill, who’s with the group eating at the center table. He’s noticed me watching him unwrap one of a plateful they have. “These here are pork. They have red mole on them. You could get chicken and have the black mole. There are 17 varieties of mole in Oaxaca. We’ve been there.”

Huh. Mole. Could go for that black, gooey, chocolatey/cocoa-ish flavor. I was going to order the tlayuda, but now I’m hot for the “Mole negro con pierna de pollo,” black mole with chicken leg and rice ($9.50).

Lucy says I can order a half-plate of chapulines ($4.50), and she’ll bring me a free sample of the gusanos (normally $10 for a dozen), just to satisfy my curiosity. Great, because I know I can’t do a plateful of both.

For drinks, I get interested in their “horchata con tuna, nuez y melon” ($3.50) when I see it passing by on its way to the merry middle table. The drink is thick and pink, sweet rice water with cantaloupe, chopped nuts, and cactus fruit (“tuna”), served in a big cocktail glass. Or, I might have the place’s namesake “tejate” drink. It’s way pre-Spanish — reserved for kings back in the day — made from the flower of the cocoa plant (flor Cacahuaxochitl) and known as the “drink of the gods.” Lucy says the word tejate comes from the Nahuatl word texatl, meaning “flowery water.”

I’m tempted. Problem is, I’m still warming up from the chill outside. So I order a hot champurrado drink, made with corn and Oaxacan chocolate that Lucy says her aunt sends up from Oaxaca. “Some others not from Oaxaca use milk and flour. We use corn and our own chocolate,” she says. A couple of minutes later, she brings it, a warm brown liquid steaming in a brown ceramic cup from Oaxaca. It’s deliciously sweet and comforting.

Soon my table’s crowded with plates — golden grasshoppers, black-coated chicken (way dramatic-looking on the blue plate), sweet golden bread, rough, crispy, hot Oaxacan-style tortillas in cloth wrapping (to keep them warm), and a little dish of worms, curled, pale gold, surrounded by slices of avocado and red onion.

By now, conversation’s flying. “Is this mole the real thing?” I ask Sergio — or Ed, as everybody calls him at his group’s table. “It is,” he says. “It has a complex taste. And it’s not too hot. Chili peppers are important, but you need to get their seeds out and peel the skin off, because that’s where the oil hides. The heat’s in the oil.”

There’s a photo of a U.S. Marine on the wall. “That’s my middle son, Julio,” Lucy says. “He just got back from Afghanistan. I can’t tell you the months of sleepless nights I’ve had.”

As I leave, I make a New Year’s resolution: bring Carla up here for her birthday, which is the 30th. She’s always interested in her ancestry, which includes Mayan blood in her veins. And if you want to know how people ate in these Americas before the conquistadors came, this may be the best place in town to find out. ■

The Place: El Tejate Oaxacan Restaurant, 205 W. Mission Avenue, suite R, Escondido, 760-747-1808
Type of Food: Oaxacan/Mexican
Prices: Entomatados breakfast (tortillas in black bean sauce, with cheese, chorizo, pork, or beef jerky), $8.50; beef jerky tacos, $2.50; shrimp fajitas, $9.99; empanada with chicken and mole, $6.50; fried grasshoppers, $8.95 ($4.50 half plate); fried maguey worms, $10 per dozen; tlayuda (big tortilla) with beef jerky, pork, or chicken, $9.50
Hours: 7:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., daily (open till 10:00 p.m. Friday–Saturday)
Buses: 354
Nearest Bus Stop: Mission and Broadway

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Thanks, Ed. Seems like a good respite from the endless orange rice and combo plate menu items all too common in Mexican restaurants. It might also be worth mentioning that the owners operated a food stall serving similar fare in the Escondido Swap Meet prior to opening their restaurant. With reports that North County hosts a sizeable Oaxacan community, this culinary addition is welcomed.

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