La Guelaguetza Mexican Restaurant, 816 Old Coors Dr. SW, (505) 916-0095, $, Open 9am to 10pm Mon. to Fri., Sat. 8am to 10pm and Sun. 8am to 9pm

Old Coors Dr., running just above the far NW limits of the South Valley, has long been a promised land for sincere businesses with reasonable prices. I often try out eateries along this stretch after hunting for bargains at Carrasco’s Place flea market, and I have yet to be disappointed. One spot stands out, though. La Guelaguetza—named for the annual Oaxacan summer festival where Zapotec, Mixtec and other Indigenous groups perform traditional dances and public rituals for both locals and tourists—celebrates its Southern Mexican identity here in a city that is dominated by the culture and cuisines of the North.    

Oaxaca, as anyone who’s spent time there knows, is a gastronomic paradise. Boasting diverse climates and many indigenous communities, the state of Oaxaca could likely claim the widest array of flavor-packed dishes in a country now widely famed for its regional specialties. When I think of Oaxaca, with its endless varieties of rich moles, smoked gusanos and toasted chapulines, pasilla chiles from the Mixteca, coal-charred wasp larvae, estofado del istmo and, of course, all manner of mero mero Mezcales, my tastebuds tremor in anticipation of a post-pandemic visit. I know that I’m downright spoiled from spending time with American ex-pat and Mexican friends living in Oaxaca every year, so I approached Guelaguetza with a bit of trepidation. But a rich aroma of slow-cooking beef, punched up by a complex blend of chiles and spices, beckoned me.

Inside, I was given a friendly welcome and handed a menu, which I took to a distant table that offered Valentina hot sauce and Germ-X on either side of the napkin dispenser. Two four-tops were seated at opposite sides of the restaurant, keeping well within the state’s current 25 percent capacity restrictions. The walls were hung with festive decorations including a pair of authentic huaraches and a beautiful huipil.

I leafed through the menu, skimming past the tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas and other standard fare here in Albuquerque, until I found what I had come here for: the Oaxacan dishes. I was thrilled when I saw that they served tlayudas, which are essentially massive corn tortillas that have been comal-toasted till crunchy, slathered with refried beans, loaded with shredded quesillo (essentially Oaxaca’s beloved interpretation of mozzarella), avocado, potentially a variety of meats or veggies and drizzled with lard. I ordered the Mole Coloradito ($12.50), a tlayuda del gallo ($12) and a tamal Oaxaqueño, of the banana leaf variety ($3.75). I was met with a heartfelt apology. They were not serving tlayudas for the foreseeable future. They were out of the tamales as well. No manches. I was crushed. 

But I can’t judge too harshly. I mean, we are nearly a year into this pandemic. And many of La Guelaguetza’s customers may not be familiar with the more intensely regional dishes on the menu. I asked for a moment to rethink my order, sneaking a peek at my pre-review notes. “Birria pizza?” I had written. I had seen a friend’s post about this novelty on Instagram and had even gotten a heads-up about it from Devin, my copy editor at The Paper. True, I had been excited about a proper Oaxacan feast, but maybe things were looking up? That said, I couldn’t find any sort of “birria pizza” on the menu. Was there another menu with specials? I asked, and the man behind the counter knew immediately what I was looking for. The birria pizza ($18.95) seemed spendy but I went for it. I would not be disappointed.       

Dreading the thought of getting home to find that the mole had cooled, I opened the container as soon as I got into my car. Moles are rich sauces made of layered spices and fats, that take numerous forms across Mexico. However, most agree that la cuna, or cradle, of these wondrous blends are Oaxaca and their neighbors to the north in Pueblo. La Guelaguetza had two varieties on offer: a black mole, generally nutty and bittersweet due to the addition of cacao, and the red, which I had ordered. 

The Coloradito was somewhat thinner than what I am accustomed to down south, but it hit all the right notes: a spicy blend of dried red chiles, brightened from the addition of fruits. Red chile oil peeked out at the edges. The chicken breast smothered below was enormous. I found myself jealous of the seated tables inside. This is a meal best eaten around a table with friends or family. Not out of a Styrofoam to-go container. 

And the pizza? As soon as I opened the box I was struck dumb. My eyes glazed over. My jaw went slack; I came close to drooling. This … thing … was colossal and smelled all kinds of tasty! While not exactly a pizza in my mind, what La Guelaguetza has built is a nearly 11-inch pie consisting of three layers, each stuffed with beef brisket (not the goat that birria is usually made from down south), melted cheese and a generous spread of minced cilantro and red onion. Swirls of crema and salsa verde topped it off. Amazingly, the bottom retained its crunchiness under all this weight. And while the eight slices were far from dry, they became all the more delectable when dipped into the rich consomé that accompanied the pizza. This broth, made of herbs, dried chiles, spices and the drippings from the brisket, gave the dish the full birria flavor of its homeland in Jalisco. 

Yes, I had internally balked at the price, but two slices in I realized that this dish could feed a small army. I had worried that this “pizza” would be nothing more than a novelty item. I was dead wrong. This rather north-of-the-border take, more reminiscent of a meat lover’s pizza than a goat or mutton taco, deserves a place on the regular menu. While I didn’t end up having the traditional Oaxaqueño feast I had been yearning for, I finished the meal beaming, and with my belt sitting tight on my hips. That said, I have my fingers crossed that tlayudas will return to their menu someday soon.

This story is a staff report from The Paper.