We had a young chef visiting us in LA from Nashville this weekend, and he wanted to go to Guelaguetza, a Oaxacan place of some repute.
We ended up going to the old location of Guelaguetza by mistake. The neighborhood has had a history of some gang problems. As it happened, 8th Street was being blocked off by the police as we pulled up to the restaurant, since somebody had been shot nearby. It did add a bit of street cred to the eyes of our out-of-town food experts, I thought, demonstrating how nonchalant and brave we Los Angelenos are in the face of danger as we casually walked past the crowds of onlookers and found our restaurant.
The old Guelaguetza space is now occupied by a Oaxacan restaurant called Sabores Oaxaquenos. It looks exactly the same as Guelaguetza, with colorful traditional Oaxacan decorations and long tables where the six of us felt like we are at a Oaxacan banquet. The hosts and waiters assured us that this restaurant was even better than the original, and cheaper, they pointed out.
On the menu there were pictures of some rolled taco appetizers in the menu that looked like taquitos or flautas. These pictures were directly across from a description of a dish called chapulines, or grasshoppers, which I mistakenly took as a cute name for the Oaxacan taquitos.
A taquito kind of looks like a grasshopper, right?
The waiter did look at me quizzically when I ordered them, now that I think about it. But soon enough he reappeared with a bowl of grasshoppers. Well, not a bowl, but a kind of tostada, a bit thicker and less crispy than what we think of as tostada, brimming with grasshoppers that had been boiled and seasoned with garlic and lime.
It’s a national dish in Oaxaca, I have since learned, one that pre-dates the arrival of the Spaniards, and that still provides and important source of protein to people in rural areas.
Well, my friend the visiting chef from Nashville was game to try them, and I was as well, because I do think of myself as that guy — the one who always orders sea urchin at the Sushi place, and who is not afraid of the shark fin soup in Monterrey Park, and who loves sweetbreads and brains and all kinds of horrible things. I love stinky wet cheese. That’s who I am. I love the taste of skank. I’m an intrepid gross food warrior.
My wife, on the other hand, is that girl who loves the spicy. She puts hot sauce on hot sauce and has never been beaten by a pepper.
Everybody has their thing. That’s not mine. Mine is gross food, like grasshoppers, right? Even though I ordered this delightful dish by mistake, you would think it was right in my wheelhouse.
It wasn’t. I finally found a gross food that I couldn’t handle. I mean I did handle it.
“Hold them by the antennae,” my friend advised me. “It makes it better somehow.”
They tasted like anchovies, but anchovies that had been sitting out in the sun too long. At first, it’s okay, but after a moment in your mouth, the rotten flavor begins to resonate.
My son was freaking out at the very sight of the bugs, let alone the sight of me holding them by the antennas and putting them on my tongue. I was trying to be cool.
So much for our street cred and looking nonchalant in the face of danger.
I must have been making some awful faces as I tried to tough these down, because my friend was laughing, and then I noticed the waiters pointing at me and clutching their sides.
These grasshoppers were frightening. It did bring up the show Survivor, and someone commented that this is usually the kind of thing you get a cash prize if you succeed in eating.
“I’ll give you twenty bucks if you finish the bowl,” I offered Charlie, our visiting chef.
“No way,” he said.
Nobody else in our party was brave enough to go near them.
Between my friend and I we ate about six, and left about sixty. They were certainly not shy about portion sizes when it came to bugs.
But then they brought out the most amazing plantain desert, a long platter of fried bananas slathered in Crema Mexicana and sweetness.
A traditional Oaxacan trio began playing on the stage before us, and we soon forgot all about the gang shooting, the grasshoppers, and anything else wrong in the world.
We were in the Oaxacan banana heaven, and loving life.