Nothing gets people excited like Taco Bell’s Mexican pizza. Back in April, the Tex-Mex fast food chain announced the item would return for a brief time after a two-year hiatus from the menu. But the company, which is owned by Yum! Brands, was running out of the coveted snack just weeks after it returned. 
SFGATE’s own Joshua Bote wrote a love letter to what he deemed “the best Taco Bell item,” which basically consists of beans mixed with ground meat layered between two tostada shells, then topped with melted cheese and cut into four sections, making it more of a pizza-meets-sandwich combination. There’s even an FAQ page on Taco Bell’s website dedicated to informing the public of anything and everything Mexican pizza related. Much to the delight of every Taco Bell stan, the late night snack is scheduled to return to the menu for good on Sept. 15, 2022.
But there’s a better “Mexican pizza” right here in the Mission District of San Francisco: the Oaxacan specialty known as the tlayuda. It can be found at a few of the Oaxacan restaurants throughout the city. The version at La Oaxaqueña at 2128 Mission St., though, holds a special place in my heart, like a first love, because it was the first time I ever experienced a “Mexican pizza.”
La Oaxaqueña, on Mission Street, in San Francisco. 
A view through the entryway of  La Oaxaqueña, on Mission Street, in San Francisco. 
A view of the bright interior at  La Oaxaqueña, on Mission Street, in San Francisco. 
The sign out front of  La Oaxaqueña, on Mission Street, in San Francisco. 
Sometime in the winter of 2013, I was out along the Valencia Street corridor, most likely at the Elbo Room, with friends who were visiting home one last time as the final semesters of college approached. We were in desperate need of some good food to sober us up when we happened upon La Oaxaqueña. My first instinct was to order tacos or a burrito, but the “tlayuda” on the menu caught my eye. The cashier described it as a large tostada and it instantly brought to mind my mother’s tostada, one of her specialties.
The cashier undersold exactly how large it would be. Much to my surprise, the tlayuda was gargantuan. The edges of the circular, flat, thin and crispy shell of masa brimmed over the edges of an extra-large white dinner plate. A smooth layer of refried pinto beans covered the entire tlayuda hull. Shredded green lettuce, milk-white Oaxacan quesillo, sliced avocados and chicken in an acidic-red chipotle sauce blanketed the giant, edible disk. I was so hypnotized by the tlayuda that I neglected to share it with my two buddies. 
SFGATE reporter Nico Madrigal-Yankowski digs into a tlayuda from La Oaxaqueña, in the Mission, on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.
In the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, the tlayuda is usually found as a street food. At night, vendors set up their tents and heat up their comals, shaping the tlayuda shells by hand, which are made with higher-starch corn so that they can stretch wider than a regular corn tortilla. A clay comal is used, specifically to pull any moisture from the masa while getting it to a masterful state of crunchy yet rigidness — strong enough to hold all of the ingredients without breaking. As celebrated Los Angeles food writer and notable Mexican food historian Bill Esparza put it, the tlayuda “is a symbol of Oaxacan culture.
On a recent return to La Oaxaqueña, and my first time since that fateful night of companion negligence and tlayuda worship, the restaurant was just as I remembered: a narrow space, yet cavernous with a high ceiling, yellow walls trimmed red and adorned with paintings of a woman in floral dress offering food on a platter and another commemorating the day Mexico’s army defeated France in what came to be known as the Battle of Puebla (also known as Cinco de Mayo). I ordered the exact same thing as I did eight or nine years ago, though, so I could try and re-live one of my most treasured food memories. 
SFGATE reporter Nico Madrigal-Yankowski digs into a tlayuda from La Oaxaqueña, in the Mission, on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.
To my delight, the powers of recall brought me back to my first ever tlayuda bite; this second first bite was a near replica. It was just as I had remembered: The warm veneer of velvety brown beans was offset by the crunchy, wet lettuce; the stringy, creamy Oaxacan specialty cheese balanced out the spiciness of the orange-ish red sauce that smothered the pulled chicken meat. Of course, the firm, crunchy shell held up under the pressure of a professional photographer snapping pics and didn’t break for the camera. It’s all in a day’s work for the emblem of Oaxacan cuisine.
On La Oaxaqueña’s own website, it says, “think of it as a Mexican pizza.” But don’t get it twisted. (How could you? All of the water from masa evaporated leaving it unpliable). A tlayuda is not a “Mexican pizza.” It is a tlayuda and should be respected as such. Otherwise, this symbol of Oaxacan culture can get erased by changing its name to something more well-known, something more Americanized.
So many of the best things I’ve ever eaten were not white-washed, and they helped shape my world view.  History and culture gleam from cuisines. One can perhaps begin to understand the history of diaspora, migration, amalgamation, colonization and atrocity that has shaped a place and its people to what it is today. The tlayuda is no exception.
La Oaxaqueña staff members, from left: owner Alfredo Ramos, line cook Roxana Chicas and chef Harry Persaud, pictured inside their restaurant on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.
Taco Bell lovers can have their Mexican pizza. There’s no shame in that. I’ll be at La Oaxaqueña, though, devouring a tlayuda.
La Oaxaqueña, 2128 Mission St., San Francisco. Open daily, 6 a.m.-2 a.m.
Nico Madrigal-Yankowski is a food reporter for SFGATE. He is a born and bred San Franciscan. Email him tips at nico.madrigal-yankowski@sfgate.com 

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