LA Times Scouting Form: Casa Oaxaca

A Vegetarian Oaxacan Tlayuda "Pizza" crisped up with toasted crushed pepita and olive oil.
A Vegetarian Oaxacan Tlayuda “Pizza” crisped up with toasted crushed pepita and olive oil.

*Originally appeared on LA Times Food’s Daily Digest Foodblog on September, 18 2013.

Name of restaurant: Casa Oaxaca.

Concept: A popular mom-and-pop Orange County export specializing in refined, lighter and very affordable interpretations of traditional regional Oaxacan cuisine, in Culver City. Plenty of veggie and seafood options. Patio dining is available too.

Chef: Rojelio Martinez. A native of Tlacochahuaya, Oaxaca — a pueblito in the valley of Oaxaca located not too far from the capital. It means “the humid place” in the Zapotec dialect. He’s worked many positions at restaurants all of his life but just recently tapped into the world of cooking, four years ago to be exact. He’s not a trained chef but is a natural at technique (a perfect example are his tortillas, worth the visit alone) and balancing various flavors and textures.

What dish represents the restaurant, and why? Tlayuda vegetariana with dry roasted meaty mushrooms and briny unpasteurized Oaxacan string cheese. Where most Oaxacan restaurants use traditional and ultra tasty asiento (freshly rendered Oaxacan toasted lard), chef Martinez saw the current healthier food trend and responded with a faux-asiento made with olive oil and toasted ground pepita pumpkin seeds. The result? A Oaxacan pizza of sorts that is crispy on the edges and slightly chewy in the middle.

Runner-ups: Ceviche de camarón on toasted – not fried – handmade thick mini-tostadas. The plump chopped fresh shrimp is enjoyably acidic and nicely seasoned. Pescado en hoja de platano for its buttery and tart flake perfumed with the aroma of the roasted banana leaf. Ask for their tempura-style flor de calabaza stuffed with quesillo. It’s served in a pool of earthy huitlacoche mole and topped with a strand or two of chepiche, a peppery and pungent Oaxacan herb. Dessert-wise, there are custardy-ripe torched plantains in a smoky mezcal sauce with toasted pecans.

Who’s at the next table? A few couples having an early Monday dinner and a handful of solo diners going to town on a plate of mole negro.

Appropriate for: Whenever that Oaxacan craving hits you hard on the Westside, or if you’re looking for something a little different when dining out in Culver City. Casa Oaxaca is walking distance from the area’s hub of restaurants and a spot on the patio is usually available.

Uh-oh: No alcohol yet, bro.

Service: Let’s just say you can really tell that the staff is passionate about sharing their Oaxacan food love with you.

What are you drinking? Agua frescas! A sweet and sour passionfruit orange combination that is topped with a scoop of passionfruit Mexican sorbet, a Oaxacan style horchata topped with toasted pecans and cactus fruit sorbet and last but not least, a lightly sweetened cucumber-lime water with chia seeds. All lined with that addictive dried chile-salt tajin rim used for margaritas and micheladas.

Info: 9609 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, (310) 838-3000.