Finding a Proper Tlayuda at La Valentina

The Long Branch restaurant is the antithesis of the Velveeta Mexican genre.

A tlayuda is a party on a plate, a winsome dish with layers of light, crispy flour tortillas topped with, say, vegetables or meats or shrimp that toy with snips of onion, stretchy little logs of mild cheese and, depending on the chef-in-charge, perhaps crunchy shreds of cabbage. If you think it sounds a little pizza-like, you’d be onto something, for a tlayuda often is referred to as “Mexican pizza.”

Pronounced chai-loo-dah, with the emphasis on the second syllable, it’s hardly a food for gringos. Especially the way the Oaxacan dish is prepared at La Valentina, a well-dressed restaurant hidden behind a grocery and dry-goods shop a few blocks west of the beach in Long Branch.

“Mixta especial” tlayuda

At La Valentina, tlayuda is a featherweight food, even when you order the “mixta especial,” which translates as a kind of everything pizza with a tangle of chicken and beef, plus pork and a crumble or five of chorizo. The mixed-meats tlayuda gets a tortilla as a topper, too, making it a kind of closed pie. You’ll note, as you might when analyzing a primo pizzaiolo’s crust, a bit of a char on the edges of the tortilla; a warmth to the bits of tomato; a respect for individual ingredients that allows each to star in one bite, then play a supporting role in the next.

La Valentina’s kitchen crew knows how to build a proper tlayuda. The first I had here was a simple one, of marinated pork; it seemed almost ephemeral, in spite of its size and generous load of meat and accents. I figured the “mixta” had to be a leaden challenge. Wrong. It’s almost ephemeral. Mysteriously so.

Octopus ceviche

I’d do it all over again partnered with the nightly ceviche—especially if the octopus number happens to be on the docket. It’s a careful assemblage of the fish, avocado, cucumber, tomato, onion and cilantro, the chopping mindful of the need to offer the eater uniform bites so no element of the dish obscures the overall flavor. Awash in fresh lime juice, it’s pristine. An exemplary take on a classic.

There’s a new dish our helpful server hopes we’ll try, and we do: pechuga a la Mexicana, a saute of boneless chicken breast with a rasher of onions, tomatoes and jalapenos. I’m not keen on the idea of chicken without a bone, but we go for it anyway and, I have to admit, it’s a juicy production, with a backdrop of rustic tomato sauce that takes nicely to the feisty rice and beans. The dollop of guacamole, chunky with onion and tomato is a plus, but I’d ditch the slab of cheese set atop the whole thing. Not necessary.

Pechuga al la Mexicana

It’s not necessary for you to order grilled steak or pork here, which invariably come overcooked. But I’d share a plate of the picaditas, handmade tortilla tarts filled with beans and darn near obliterated with slivered lettuces, cubed tomatoes and onions, thick slices of avocado, a tumble of cheese and squiggles of crema.

As we’re finishing up at La Valentina with a pie-shaped wedge of Napolitan flan (dense, creamy and ladled with a sweet, thin caramel sauce), I’m thinking that this place is the antithesis of the Velveeta Mexican genre, where most dishes come drowning in cheese and taste of little else. La Valentina is about authentic dishes currently served largely to the local Mexican community by a team that welcomes, and happily educates, gringos. Adios, Velveeta.

La Valentina, 186 Broadway in Long Branch. BYOB. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 732-222-5521; www.lavalentinarestaurant.com.

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