Have you ever been to a business where you walk in, and it's empty, and you suddenly feel like you're interrupting their day? My first reaction is to feel apologetic. I want to say, "Sorry to bother you, but—I'm hungry, for lunch. Would you mind, terribly?" Then I snap out of it and remember that I'm a paying customer and I'm there to give them money in exchange for a meal.
When we walked into El Tejate in Escondido, I caught that vibe, although not in an unwelcoming sort of way. It felt more like we accidentally caught them with their hair still in curlers. (Note to self: Find a more contemporary metaphor.) It took a few minutes before anyone made eye contact with us and got us a table and menus, but once we were settled, the service and atmosphere were warm and friendly.
El Tejate (205 W Mission Ave.) specializes in Oaxacan cuisine, a region most famous for moles, those delectable sauces with varied colors and spices, and, yes, even a bit of chocolate on occasion.
I tucked into a deep, warm dish of mole negro—tender chicken and a scoop of rice covered in a rich, black sauce. If you're still one of those people weirded out by chocolate in a savory dish, it's time to move past that hang-up. This isn't Hershey's syrup mixed into some chili sauce. It's important to remember that unsweetened cocoa is bitter and earthy and gives a complexity to savory dishes that's so very unique, and a reminder as to why chocolate is a truly magical food. El Tejate's black mole was luscious and comforting. This isn't a spicy dish, but I felt my taste buds opening with the warmth of the chiles and the smoky boldness of the chocolate.
Don't miss the torta Oaxaqueña, better than the typical torta you're used to at an average Mexican eatery. This sandwich comes with beef, pork and a layer of chorizo that packs the best punch of zippy flavor to an already packed and meaty sandwich. Add to that a swipe of creamy black beans, some gooey cheese and chunks of velvety avocado and you've got a torta that's pretty tough to beat. I had to keep putting down forkfuls of mole so I could steal bites of my husband's sandwich.
We also ordered an appetizer, the molotes, but they arrived at the end of our meal. That's cool; they were still a highlight, no matter what layer they made up in my belly. Chorizo, cheese and creamy potatoes are encapsulated in a crispy shell of corn dough. This isn't the sweet corn masa from a tamale; this hot, crunchy outer coating tasted like freshly popped popcorn, filled with way-better delights than butter and salt.
El Tejate and I may have gotten off to an awkward start, but by the end of our meal, I was ready to jet off to Oaxaca for a tour of mole and more. Until then, I'll be an armchair traveler—and eater—in this little Escondido outpost.
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