Ever finish a salad, and then mop up the last bits of veggies and dressing with bread? In Oaxaca, Mexico they’ve turned that into a dish called “piedrasos.” Except instead of salad and dressing, they use pickled vegetables and pickling brine.
Food writer Bill Esparza just got back from a trip to Oaxaca, and wrote about piedrasos for Los Angeles magazine. Rico met with him at the L.A. food stand Oaxacalifornia Cafe & Juice Bar, one of very few places in L.A. that serves the dish. First, Rico asked Bill for a pronunciation lesson.
Bill Esparza: Pi-EH-drah-zos, which means “little stones.” Because that’s all… you’re basically eating little pieces of hard bread — kind of in between a hard bread and a crouton — and then you just pour vinegar on them, which is kind of an odd thing.
And I’ve been trying so hard to say, “This is a torta right? Some kind of torta?” I want to include it in my list of tortas, but it’s not. It’s just a snack that you find, oddly, at ice cream shops in Oaxaca.
Rico Gagliano: Wait, what?
Bill Esparza: Yeah. They have vendors that just do this on the street as well, but it seemed to be a thing with all the ice cream shops over there.
I love it. It’s really unique. It’s a really a great flavor of Oaxaca that people don’t talk about. People always talk about mole and tamales, but you never hear about this dish.
Rico Gagliano: Let’s talk about the actual components of the thing. So, the first thing, obviously, is that you have to have the bread. And it has to be a hard bread. This is a white flour bread with a not too thick of a crust. Is it actually made specifically in a special way for this dish? Or it’s just any bread that you kind of dry out?
Bill Esparza: Yeah, this is a kind of bread. It’s only used for piedrazos. They only use this kind of bread and it comes quartered like this [points to the dish]. They quarter the rolls and they sell them in bags, and people take them to their stands and make the piedrazos.
Rico Gagliano: Although, I can imagine this dish maybe being born of practicality. Just another use for hard, day-old bread.
Bill Esparza: Yeah, or it might just be… I was just talking to the owner, Juan, here at Oaxacalifornia, and he only serves it during… when you have the Guelaguetza going on in July.
Rico Gagliano: What’s that?
Bill Esparza: Guelaguetza is a traditional Oaxacan celebration that’s all over Oaxaca. There’s lots of dance and ceremony, and there’s mezcal. There’s lots of dance and ceremony, and there’s mezcal, and there’s lots of throwing of gifts to the crowd.
So, I guess maybe this helps soak up all that mezcal, because it’s basically just bread. I imagine it helps, and let’s just go with that.
Rico Gagliano: It certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Bill Esparza: No. No, it wouldn’t.
Rico Gagliano: All right. Let’s keep going through components of this dish. So you got the hard bread, it is sitting in this case on a bed of pickled onions and carrots, which were sitting there pickling in a big jar on the front counter. Is that typically the vegetables that you’re getting?
Bill Esparza: Yeah, the vegetables are typical. You would get different variations over there. Oaxaca has lots of pickled things. Pickled mangoes, you get pickled apples, potatoes. They also do potatoes and they’ll cover that with the pickling juice. And you take the bread and you dunk it into the brine, pour some of the brine on top and some of the vegetables and that’s it. Piedrazos.
Rico Gagliano: On top of all this of course, you’ve also got some chili powder that’s been sprinkled on top. In your article, you mentioned cheese. I don’t see cheese in this particular variation.
Bill Esparza: Right. Oaxacan cheese, that string cheese, ends up in a lot of dishes, so it’s an option. And there’s places that do, like, a variety of piedrazos and you can get all of these different combinations. Yes, and of course we always have chili powder, or chiles, in everything.
Rico Gagliano: Just to remind us it’s a Mexican dish.
Bill Esparza: Right.
Rico Gagliano: Right, I’m going to take a bite of this thing. I mean the thing that I love about it is that it’s just so simple and straightforward.
The preparation was done in front of us at the counter. A big hunk of bread was just dunked deep into this barrel of pickling juice until it just… the bubbles stop coming up and it was fully soaked with this brine. I’m pretty sure I’m going to like it because it has salt and carbs so that’s not a problem.
[Reaches over to pick up a piece of the dish] Oh, and you’re handing me a fork. I can’t just pick this up with my bare hands?
Bill Esparza: Well man, we’re sharing it, so…
Rico Gagliano: [Laughs] That’s true! “I don’t care, this is my show. You deal with my germs!” Hold on, here we go [tastes dish].
Bill Esparza: Isn’t it great?
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, that’s exactly what you want. It’s a real blast of salt by the way. It’s very early in the morning so my taste buds are now fully oiled.
Bill Esparza: Yeah. As you said, it’s very simple, and straightforward, yet kind of odd, and intriguing. I mean it’s the reason why for over… I mean really a couple of years I would like, I want to get this dish.
Rico Gagliano: I’m going to take one more bite of this thing. And then I’m going to need something sweet to balance it out. I totally understand why you would serve this in an ice cream store, actually.