Survivor - Owner Lucy Contreras, and poster showing her in traditional Oaxacan dress.
“Listen, kid, people have been flinging their fangs around these little guys for generations. I think we can handle them once and live to tell the tale.”
“I’m not touching them. Forget it.”
‘They’re salty. They’re a botana, a snack! They go with your Modelo beer. Here, I’ll show you.”
205 West Mission Avenue, Suite R, Escondido
Maggie, the beloved stepdaughter, watches in horror as I put a mouthful in and start crunching away. Chapulines, roasted grasshoppers.
Why doesn’t she get it? Chapulines are like protein packs on legs. Aztecs have crunched on them since way before they even had Tenochtitlan as a capital. I’ve had them before as well. As long as you don’t get their legs stuck between your teeth, they’re a cinch to eat, and tasty with seasonings of garlic, lime juice, and salt (and sometimes an extract of maguey worms, which give them a sour and spicy taste).
We’re in a tent in a parking lot facing a sign, Gastronomia Oaxaqueña, an eatery in the Mission Escondido shopping center. It’s late afternoon, and here in Escondido, boy, we’ve also been roasting. Way hotter than on the coast.
Except, right now, early evening, it’s cooling down nicely, and a frosty Negra Modelo helps mightily. But we came to eat, and Lucy, the owner, turned us in the right direction.
“We have the best moles, because we are from Oaxaca, but you could start off with botanas — snacks — like chapulines, or gusanos,” she said.
The gusanos — moth caterpillars that hatch and grow on agave spears — turn out to be uber-nutritious. Like, three ounces of them contain about 650 calories, the equivalent two plates of rice.
Oaxaca, the Pacific coast state south of Mexico City, is also famous for chiles, chocolate, and turkeys (and no, turkeys didn’t come from Turkey. They came from Mexico). In fact, along with tomatoes, potatoes, chiles, chocolate, cocaine (Original Coca Cola, anybody?), the Americas seem to be feeding the world, good habits and bad.
And Oaxaca has the richest reputation for food, along with Lima, Peru, which they call the gastronomic capital of the Americas. Oaxaca has one of my favorite snacks, the tlayuda (“Mexican pizza,”) a 16-inch corn tortilla, partially fried, loaded with asiento (pork lard), beans, quesilla (Oaxaca specialty — think Mexican mozzarella), cabbage, tomato, avocado, plus the main element, tasajo (beef), cecina (pork), or my usual choice, chorizo. Fifteen bucks. Not cheap, but they do make deliciously flavored disks to crack your teeth into.
On the other hand, this being a Oaxacan place, mole is everywhere. One temptation is a tamal with mole negro, and pork, wrapped in banana leaf. Costs $4.99.
So, dilemma. We could go safe, and have a chicken mole poblano. Costs $14.99, with rice. Or mole roja ($14.99), or green or yellow.
But no. When in Rome.... We order the plate of grasshoppers and another of agave worms (I promise Mag I’ll eat the worms. Plates are $13.99 each) ’Course, then I see we could have gotten a way-cheaper alternative, a chapulines taco for $3.99. Dang.
Still, the good news is Mag takes to the chapulines like a dolphin to water. Loves that garlicky, shrimpy, limey, smoky taste. I mean, the plate is fairly basic: raw onion, avocado, tomato slices all around, but mainly this pile of spiky, dark, naked-looking insect bodies, which it takes a little getting used to to eat. Same with the worms, the gusanos, except they come better disguised. They’re on an interesting pile of guacamole, filled with veggie bits, plus chips to scoop them up with. Good thing too, because you need a bit of protection when you chew. They’re crunchy-fried but a little squirty, too. Whatever, you know you’re feeding yourself full of protein. Actually, when you think about it, this is like eating the agave plant itself, with a little processing from our gusano friends.
Lucy comes back out from inside. She carries a small red bowl of frothy liquid. “Try this,” she says. “It gives you energy, life energy. Men appreciate it, and it helps women make more milk for babies.”
She says a long time ago, only Aztec royalty was allowed to drink it. They called it their tejate. “Elixir of the gods.”
“The Zapotec and Mixtec people still love it very much. They drink it to celebrate.”
Mag picks up the bowl. It’s filled to the brim. “Ooh,” she says when she tries it. “Delicious. Chocolatey. Fruity.”
She passes it over. Rich, bubbly, like champurrado? No. But cacao’s definitely in there. Lucy insists this is on the house. It normally costs $4.99.
I take another gulp. Sweet, cocoa-like, fermented. Deeply comforting.
“This is my own recipe,” Lucy says. “It includes cocoa, the cocoa flower, corn, coconut, and the seed of the sapote tree.”
I take another sip, and imagine all the Aztec royals drinking this same potion under the pyramids of the great city of Tenochtitlan.
I ask Lucy how this past year has been. “It has been hard,” she says. She is a brave lady. She has faced covid, close-downs, and her husband Simon passing away. But she rode out all these storms. And here she is, still in business. “Actually, the irony is 2020 was our best year yet. It’s a miracle,” she says. “People gathered around us.”
“We’ll be coming back,” says Mag. “I want more chapulines.”
“And I want some mole,” I say. “Mole ooblano.”
“‘Poblano’ means it’s from the state of Puebla,” says Lucy. “Not Oaxaca. ‘And poblano mole has more sugar. Our mole negro has more chocolate.”
“That’s what you want,” says Mag.
“This young lady has good sense,” says Lucy.
- The Place: El Tejate, 205 W. Mission Avenue, Suite R, Escondido, 760-747-1808 (2nd location at 3050 Pio Pico Drive, Carlsbad, tel 760-637-5320)
- Hours: 9am-9pm, daily
- Prices: Mole negro or roja, with rice, $14.99; mole de olla verde or amarillo, $15.99; tamale in banana leaf with pork, $4.99; three memelitas (masa cakes topped with, say, black beans, mole, cheese), $8.99; mojarra frita (whole fried fish), $12.99; tlalpeño (chicken and veggie soup, $12.99); tasajo con hongos (beef with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, peppers, rice, black beans), $14.99; choriqueso taco (pork with cheese), $3.99
- Buses: 258, 354, 356, 359
- Nearest Bus Stops: North Broadway and East Mission Avenue (258, 359); Escondido Boulevard and Mission Avenue (354, 356)