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Mexican Tlayudas Are Better Than American Pizza

Forget that tomato, dough, and cheese invention and dive into this crispy, beautiful Mexican creation to live life to the fullest.

When I was a kid, my abuelita called the shots in the kitchen, or at least until old age got to her. A native Oaxacan, she taught me about the glorious invention that is the tlayuda, a.k.a. Mexican pizza, that makes life worth living.

At the market, she'd buy two dozen Oaxacan tortillas, roughly the size of a trucker's steering wheel, lard, and queso fresco that crumbled under the touch of a finger. Once she got home, she'd mash boiled beans with an avocado leaf in a clay pot and toss in a touch of spicy salsa roja. Then, she'd place the tlayuda over a comal, and patiently wait for it to get hot so she could spread a good layer of asiento (toasted, unrefined lard) over it, followed by the mashed beans and crumbled cheese. She died 12 years ago, and I've never come close to a version quite like hers until recently, when I stumbled onto Mexico City's Santisima Street, where expert tlayuda guru Gildardo Soto is busy making magic happen in a tiny stall.

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Tlayuda. All photos by the author.

Soto sits behind a tub of nieve quemada (a smoky, creamy ice cream) where he's surrounded by other Oaxacan classics: tejate, a milky drink made out of corn, cocoa, chapulines (grasshoppers), nenguanitos (lard and panela biscuits), and mamón, sliced sweet bread.

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"Not all tlayudas are made the same. It should not have radishes or any other vegetables for that matter," Soto explains as he cooks. A good one must be made out of corn and nothing else." Soto rarely steps away from the griddle because of customer demand. "I go to the market early to get my supplies around 8 AM and leave around 10 PM."

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Soto moved to Mexico City in the early 90s, when he first began working odd jobs as a mechanic's assistant and a street coffee vendor, but business was bad. He even sold plush toys, souvenirs, and cosmetics. But when his two-month-old son fell gravely ill in 2000, Soto was forced to liquidate his life savings to help pay for the medical bills. His family offered him a job at their Oaxacan specialty store to help him get out of debt, where he proudly rules the roost today.

"My aunt, Areli Soto López, used to work here and taught me everything I know," Soto tells me as he places a tortilla on the griddle. He drops a piece of tasajo steak next to it. The sizzling of the tasajo fat on the heat competes with the music on the small radio in the corner. The cook spreads asiento on the tortilla with a little brush, followed by a generous portion of mashed beans. "I don't like it when the beans are all watery, so I make sure they're really thick."

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He then grabs a piece of queso fresco and crumbles it over the tlayuda. "A lot of people make the mistake of using really salty cheese, but I use unsalted because the lard has all the salt you need." He tops the giant pizza-looking object with cabbage, and it's almost done.

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"Normally, tlayudas shouldn't have cabbage, red tomatoes, radishes, or any of those things. An authentic Oaxacan tlayuda has nothing but asiento, beans, queso fresco, and the meat," he explains, but he's willing to adjust for the Mexico City palate. He methodically dips a plastic spoon into the red sauce made with chiles de agua, which he spreads from the outside in so that the thick sauce draws a spiral over the corn tortilla.

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The tasajo is releasing its characteristic salty, fatty smell. Soto grabs it with his left hand and cuts it into ribbon-like pieces with scissors in his right hand. The pieces fall onto the tlayuda like pizza toppings. "I like making them," Soto explainsas he hands me a tlayuda on a Styrofoam plate. "Some people around here might frown upon the sight of a man in the kitchen, but this is all about showing the pride in where I come from."

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The tortilla is firm, crunchy, and holds the sweet flavors of Oaxaca. The avocado leaf gives the beans a lovely aroma and a hint of toasted chile de arbol gives them a kick. The steak is soft and salty, but not enough to overwhelm the palate. As I give the tlayuda a full bite, my grandma's zing can't be found, but it's good enough to make me come back twice a week.