Recently, I began coverage of a trio of Del Rey restaurants serving Molé (MOH-lay), one of México’s most famous and beloved culinary traditions. One of these restaurants, El Jacalito (ha-ka-LEE-toe), serving authentic Molé from the Mexican state of Oaxaca (wa-HA-ka), the self-proclaimed capital of Molé, was profiled.
We continue our Del Rey Molé Crawl with reviews of two restaurants sharing very similar names (El Sazón Oaxaqueño and Sazón Latin Fusion), serving two very different styles of molé. ‘Sazón has many meanings in Spanish, including ‘taste,’ ‘flavor,’ ‘seasoning,’ and ‘season’ (as in, ‘winter season’ or ‘in season’). It is similar to a more commonly used Spanish word, ‘sabor,’ (‘taste,’ or ‘flavor’). El Sazón Oaxaqueño (wa-ha-KAY-nyo), like El Jacalito, is another home-style restaurant serving traditional Oaxacan Molé recipes, eight menu items in all. Sazón Latin Fusion, as the name suggests, interprets dishes known throughout Latin America with an inventive and healthy twist, and counts one molé among its "Signature Dishes."
For a detailed mini-history of the Mexican Molé tradition, and a complete review of our first stop on the ‘Crawl,’ El Jacalito, refer to Del Rey Molé Crawl, Part I . And now, without further ado, on we roll today with tasting of much more molé!
El Sazón Oaxaqueño sits at the far left corner of a typical Los Angeles strip mall, surrounded by a 98 cents ‘mini mart,’ laundromat, beauty salon, video store, and party supply/flower shop. A large ‘Cash Only’ sign is posted in the window—you have been forewarned! The first thing you notice upon entering El Sazón Oaxaqueño is a long, colorful, tiled countertop adjacent to two large pastry cases. It specializes in no less than pan arieties of Pan Dulce (DUHL-say), or ‘Mexican Sweet Bread.’ These come in round, crescent, and flat rectangular shapes. Many are covered in powdered sugar, and others are filled with custard or fruit marmalades like pineapple, the latter akin to a turnover. All are cheap. At $2 for a trio of treats, taking some to go is a must.
So is El Sazón Oaxaqueño a bakery doubling as a restaurant, or vice versa? Seems it is equally both. Throughout the course of two hours I spent at the restaurant on a Monday evening, I noticed a moderate but steady flow of customers at the bakery counter taking their pan dulce to go. When I arrived at the restaurant around 6 p.m., four of the ten blonde wood glass-top tables with wooden country-style chairs are filled with Latino families. A mere 30 minutes later, the joint is virtually packed to capacity by a diverse group of diners. Clearly the place is a popular neighborhood staple, which makes the pop music playing overhead all the more appropriate.
The youngish server, Lisbeth, is friendly and professional, and is the lone server for the rapidly growing crowd. When I ask her if she’s the owner, she smiles shyly and points to a framed business license on the wall.
“That’s the owner, but he’s not here today," she said.
Upon closer inspection, I see that Javier Gutierrez is the owner, and has been in business here for approximately a dozen years. A yellowing review from perhaps almost as many years ago is framed nearby, written by the renowned L.A. Times food critic, Jonathan Gold.
I am quickly presented with the customary complimentary chips and salsa. These chips are larger than Jacalito’s and, unlike Jacalito’s, are probably not homemade, though they still taste quite good. Especially when dipped in the homemade salsa, which is much less spicy than Jacalito’s, yet no less satisfying - cool, refreshing, and full of zesty tomato-ey goodness.
El Sazón Oaxaqueño’s menu boasts no less than eight Molé dishes, the most of any of the restaurants on the ‘Crawl.’ However, as at El Jacalito, the varieties are limited to the three basic kinds of Molé, Molé Negro (black), Molé Coloradito (Oaxacan-specific red), and Molé Amarillo (yellow). The selections range from burritos, enchiladas, enmoladas (tortillas dipped in molé), empanadas, caldos (soups/stews), tamales, and the two most common traditional chicken molé entrées, Molé Negro con Pollo and Molé Coloradito de Pollo.
Eager to try the two molé entrées, and remembering how quickly after ordering my appetizers I was served the molé entrées at El Jacalito, I chose to bypass the appetizers altogether at El Sazón. Depending upon my remaining appetite, I would likely order appetizers at the end of the meal this time.
Unlike the rapid-fire service at El Jacalito, it took quite some time, slightly more than 15 minutes, for the two entrées to be delivered to my table. I immediately noticed some differences between these and the same two dishes I ordered at El Jacalito.
Firstly, El Sazón’s portions are definitely smaller than Jacalito’s. Just as at Jacalito, you get a drumstick and chunk of chicken on the bone smothered in molé sauce, with rice on the right side of the plate. Yet these drumsticks and chicken chunks are MUCH smaller than Jacalito’s. Secondly, the rice is served plain, in contrast to Jacalito’s, which is speckled with peas, carrots, corn, thinly sliced green onions, and a stray green bean or two. The El Sazón rice portion is also slightly smaller. Thirdly, you’ll pay a bit more ($1.50 more for the Molé Negro and $1.00 more for the Molé Coloradito) at El Sazón than you would at Jacalito.
As for taste, the differences between El Sazón and Jacalito’s entrées are subtler, yet the overall winner in my evaluation has got to be Jacalito. The molé sauces themselves have similar thicknesses and similar chile flavors and spices. The smoky, toasted flavor of El Sazón’s Molé Negro exhibits a bit less licorice taste and is slightly tangier than its Jacalito counterpart. The Molé Coloradito sauce is quite similar to the one at Jacalito, if a bit less complex.
There is a more pronounced difference in the taste of the chicken. The El Sazón chicken is a bit drier than Jacalito’s, and unlike Jacalito’s, the skin does not melt into juicy chicken meat seamlessly. In fact, the skin at El Sazón is undercooked, a bit too chewy, and certainly not crispy. This is true especially with the Coloradito, so much so that I found myself removing most of its skin.
Reasonably satisfied with the two molé entrées and not yet full from sampling, I order up three more dishes. Two are appetizers that I had tried at El Jacalito, and the other is a soup/stew made with yellow molé.
The Memela Con Asiento ($2.50) is a thick handmade corn tortilla with a filling of puréed beans, cheese, and light salsa. Unlike the one at Jacalito (called ‘Memelita’), where one can choose between Queso Fresco or Quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese), at El Sazón you get a choice of several meats OR Quesillo to accompany the base filling.
The Memela at El Sazón is about as good as the Memelita at Jacalito’s, which contained Queso Fresco rather than Quesillo. It doesn't have any shredded lettuce like the Jacalito Memelita and the beans and string cheese at El Sazón make for a perfectly delicious combination. The tortilla, however, is a bit less crispy than the one at Jacalito, trending towards soggy.
The Empanada Amarillo de Pollo ($5.00) arrives as described on the menu, indeed a ‘HUGE handmade corn tortilla folded and stuffed with chicken and yellow molé.’ Much like the smaller empanada at Jacalito, it resembles a quesadilla in shape. As I’ve learned that Molé Amarillo in general is much lighter in thickness and flavor profile than other molés, I was not surprised by the somewhat bland taste. It was slightly more satisfying than the one at Jacalito. And the ginormous size left me with a huge chunk of leftover.
Last on the sampling feast is the Amarillo de Rez (beef stew with yellow molé, $6.00). It arrives in a deep bowl, its deep orange, bubbling broth revealing a hearty, swirling mélange of melon slices, green beans, and potatoes well-spiced with chiles, cloves, and cumin. It’s definitely got the spicy kick I prefer, and although it’s a very satisfying dish, I enjoy the somewhat fatty meat and over-salty aftertaste far less. ‘Tis true, El Sazón is hardly diet food.
Sazón Latin Fusion is a stark contrast to its Oaxacan counterparts. Entering through the rear off a small parking lot, I am greeted by a dense collection of hanging potted plants, which evoke a lush, tropical ambience. The entryway opens to a long, narrow dining room. It’s 8 p.m. on a Sunday night and the patrons consist of two young couples on dates. Paintings from local artists adorn the warm orange walls. Similar vinyl chairs and wooden tables to those found at El Jacalito are dressed in black slips and black and orange tablecloths, respectively. A chalkboard showcases the daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner specials. The lighting is slightly too bright to fully establish an air of romance. World music playing overhead rounds out the vibe.
Chef, owner, and tonight’s server Claudia Quihuys (KEE-wees) claims Sonoran Mexican roots, and grew up primarily in Los Angeles. She is very accommodating and eager to educate about her healthy, pan-Latin American dishes, which fuse culinary traditions stretching from Mexico and the Caribbean (including Puerto Rico and Cuba) to Central and South America (such as Peru and Argentina).
I choose another Empanada ($3.25) appetizer to start. This empanada is much more familiar to me than the Oaxacan style. An Argentine-Mexican fusion, this empanada is small and very pastry-like. It is not much larger than a slightly oversized Asian ‘potsticker’ dumpling, but with a thick, dense shell. The empanada is perfectly flaky and maintains its composition once you bite into it. It’s not greasy, and the mashed potato and spinach filling I chose has a very mild flavor, a bit too mild for my palette. I supplement it with the mixed cabbage and crema on the plate, then dip it in the Cilantro Tomatillo Salsa it’s served with, which satisfies with a cool, moderately spicy flavor I’m craving.
As I’ve come for the molé, I order up the lone molé menu item, the ‘Sazón Chicken’ ($10.95). A hybrid of Cuban and Mexican influences, the dish assures me it is going to be a non-traditional take on the popular red molé sauce (molé colorado). Chef Quihuys points out that her molé sauce contains but seven ingredients, relatively bare bones when compared to the 27-30+ that go into traditional Oaxacan molé sauces.
Unlike the Oaxacan Molé de Pollo entrées, The Sazón Chicken comes stuffed with a ‘sweet’ plantain paste. In addition to white rice, it is served with black beans and tortillas. Unlike the dozen or so tortillas I received at Jacalito and El Sazón, I only get two small corn tortillas to accompany this molé dish.
The red Colorado molé sauce is much milder in chile spice, thinner in consistency, and smaller in quantity than the sauces at Jacalito or El Sazón. That is not to say it isn’t tasty in its own right. The molé is very zesty, with a slight vinegary flavor that is not unpleasant. The chicken is chewier and denser than either of the Oaxacan offerings. It’s tender, but not nearly as moist as the other two. The chicken is driest and chewiest on the ends, more than my preference, but with a pleasant smoked texture. The skin is not crisp, but exhibits just the right chewy texture. The black beans are served with green onions, slightly harder and blander than my liking. The baked plantain stuffing is fluffy, starchy, and not drenched in oil like the better known fried plantains, which is a good thing. However, I do wish the plantains were a bit sweeter, to balance the starchiness.
This concludes the Del Rey Molé Crawl. I do hope to return to Sazón Latin Fusion to check some more potentially inventive pan-Latin American dishes. And I will be sure to periodically indulge in the decadent Oaxacan delights at El Jacalito and El Sazón Oaxaqueño.
Hooray and Olé for Molé!
El Sazón Oaxaqueño, 12131 Washington Pl., Los Angeles, CA 90066 Tel: 310.391.4721 Open Daily for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, 7am-9:30pm. Beer Only. Cash Only. Price: Inexpensive.
Sazón Latin Fusion, 12406 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90066 Tel: 310.390.9501 Open for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner Sun.,Tue-Thu 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10pm. Beer and Wine. Visa/MasterCard Accepted. Price: Moderate. www.sazonlatinfusion.com