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.