Oaxacan cuisine is something that draws food lovers from all over the world to the south central city region of Oaxaca, widely considered the food capital of Mexico. Oaxacan food specialities entice food lovers from all over the world with their moles (sauces), a plethora of street food, bustling food markets, Oaxacan string cheese, rivers of chocolate (an ingredient which is an integral part of everyday cooking in this state) and elegant fine dining, which is so creative and yet so economical and laid back that you might feel as if the food Gods are humoring you. Honestly, it is next to impossible to have a bad meal in Oaxaca, even with your most intense dietary restrictions. The only thing I can say about this city is arrive very hungry, nay, famished and you will not be disappointed. As a bona fide food lover, I did my extensive research and managed to hit almost every place on list before our departure, and sampled everything from street food to market fair to seated dining. So here is my Oaxaca food guide to sampling the best of Oaxacan cuisine for you to do the same. For clarity and convenience, I am going to divide this Oaxaca food specialities guide into three categories: a) Markets, b) street food/cafes and c) fine dining. To get a grip of the culinary scene in this city, which by the way is no mean feat, do try to savor a little bit of everything at every venue. So let’s begin this quest for traditional and not so traditional Oaxacan food!
A) MARKETS TO SAMPLE AMAZING OAXACAN CUISINE
If Oaxaca city represents a behemoth of deliciousness, its several bustling markets are definitely the epicenter of it all and thus the perfect place to sample some local Oaxacan food specialities. Food so cheap and yet so tasty with a mind-boggling variety will leave you gaping and wanting more. You can get lost in the narrow, smoky lanes of these mercados for hours and yet never get tired of sampling the varied fares from the different stalls. A few hundred pesos (equivalent to 5-10 USD) will get you a full round up of Oaxacan cuisine for sure, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. So get out of that hotel of yours as early as possible and head to the nearest local market to savor the true flavors of the city. Mercado 20 de Noviembre, closest to our hotel (Hotel Trebol) tops the list with its rows and rows of tiny stalls with daily fixtures of Oaxacan street food (I will talk more about this later), drinking chocolate (either in water or milk) and pan (bread) for dunking. Like any Oaxacan worth her/his salt, I started my day with a big cup of chocolate de agua, a delicious drinking chocolate (in water) which was churned for that beautiful white froth floating on top. If that and the accompanying pan were not enough, we also got a tlayuda, a popular Oaxacan street food, which is essentially a crispy corn tortilla topped with a variety of toppings, one of which is asiento (pork lard). You can easily request one “sin asiento” (minus the pork). So potent was its charm that we made a second visit, this time to savor the famous Oaxcacan tamales, which unlike the regular ones sold in Mexico, are wrapped in banana leaf and are definitely a cornerstone of Oaxacan cuisine. Everywhere you go, you will find the drinks menu equally impressive as the food, so please don’t pass up on my absolute favorite champurrado (a warm, thick Mexican drink made of chocolate and corn/masa/atole) or a series of corn (atole) based drinks such as Atoles de guayaba (Guava + corn/masa).
There are several food markets in and around Zona Centro that will entice you with their varied take on Oaxacan cuisine. A visit to La Merced for its Caldo de pollo (chicken soup with rice in a pot), the small organic market El Pochote for atoles, empanadas (unlike Chilean and Argentinian ones, these are more like quesadillas with meat/veggie fillings in a tortilla folded in half) and memelas (thick toasted corn/cakes topped with refried beans and famous Oaxacan string cheese/queso) and the mammoth Central de Abastos market for every object available under the sun, is a must. The bustling La Merced has the famous La Florecita where you can get a good, cheap breakfast while the quiet El Pochote has a hand full of stalls selling several food items, juices and coffee. The central market is a different beast altogether and is located about 0.6 miles west to Zocalo. You will be greeted with rows and rows of mole, spices, all kinds of different Mexican chillies, huge white balls of the famous Oaxacan string cheese and chocolate selling stalls which are staple ingredients for cooking Oaxacan food specialities. We also found stacked piles of yellow chicken feet (chicken in Mexico are fed on a diet of corn which gives them this intense yellow color) which were really popular with the shoppers who seemed to buy a few along with a plastic bag of their favorite mole. An entire section of the market was dedicated to breads (pan) which came in almost all sizes and shapes, but the round ones, used for dunking in your chocolate drinks were the most abundant. It took us some time to figure out where the food stalls were but we finally gravitated to an old, frail woman selling tamales off her cart and got a suspicious looking pumpkin seed filled drink from a man (its amazing the things that my stomach endured on this trip). This followed by a small cookie was the last thing we sampled before bidding the market adieu. Food guide tip: if you want to savor some real Oaxacan cuisine and eat like a local, simply stop by one of these markets. You can spend an entire week at Mercado 20 de Noviembre and still not have your fill of tacos, empanadas, caldo de pollo and tlayudas. The sheer variety of Oaxacan food specialities, the amazing home cooked taste minus all touristy gimmicks and the palpable energy of the hustle and bustle is a feast for all senses.
B) OAXACA FOOD GUIDE #2: STREET FOOD AND CAFES
All the markets and cafes, forming a major chunk of this food guide, were for walking distance for us barring the famous yet equally unassuming Itanoní Tortillería y Antojería, which is touted to be Alice Waters’ favorite tortillería in Oaxaca city and without which, no Oaxacan cuisine journey will be complete. Being from the Bay area, a trek to such a place was therefore a must and therefore we got a cab to drop by for lunch. A small eatery, its most striking feature was a group of women wearing face masks and hair net while cooking devotedly on the comal (the concave clay surfaced griddle) which makes their tortilla world famous. After seeking permission for photography (a sign says you have to), I quickly snapped a few photos and we ordered some drinks (tamarindo and champurrado) plus our favorite memeles with different toppings and their Tetelas (another one of many Oaxacan food specialities), tortillas folded into a triangular patty with a gooey filling of Oaxacan cheese and refried beans. The tortilla is heated on the comal while the fillings are added to change their consistency from solid to semi-solid by applying heat. The meal was simple yet delicious and now that I know why Alice Waters makes a stop there (totally worth it), I highly recommend you do so too! Arrive early for breakfast or lunch because this place fills up quickly!
C) OAXACAN CUISINE CREATIVITY #3: RESTAURANTS AND FINE DINING
Fine dining in Oaxaca city is in no way a stuffy experience unlike in other major food destinations of the world. You can enter relatively casually dressed for a good meal in a beautiful ambiance and because we had visited offseason, the restaurants were either nearly empty for lunch or had seats for dinner. Oaxaca restaurants are trying to showcase their native Oaxacan cuisine in innovative and extremely creative ways, the result being some extremely memorable meals that we got to savor on our trip. Origen, in a beautiful hacienda style villa, blew our mind with its food while Catedral awed us with its take on Oaxacan food specialities. Casa Oaxaca restaurante, the most well talked dining institution in Oaxaca city was a little bit of a damp squib (I am not too fond of highly meaty dishes with a lot of mole dunked on it and my lamb chops were kind of like that) but we got a table on their terrace with an excellent view of the Santo Domingo at night. However, if I were to recommend only meal in Oaxaca city to all you food lovers out there, it will have to be at my favorite restaurant Pitiona, the star of this Oaxaca food guide, where the Oaxacan cuisine just blew my mind! Go for the chef’s tasting menu (they accommodate vegetarians) and simply get lost in the heavenly delights showcasing elements of Oaxacan ingredients and techniques across the land by the extremely talented chef, Chef Jose Manuel Baños Rodriguez. This is sophisticated Oaxacan cooking taken to a different level of creativity. The dishes are light and portions size is small, due to which a 6 course meal feels good and not heavy on the stomach. Being a dinner venue, I did not want to innundate you with dark photos of food, but rest assured this will be one of your most memorable meals ever.
Finally, if you are familiar with Mexican libations, you must be wondering as to why I so conveniently left out any Mezcal (distilled alcoholic beverage made form any native agave plant) tasting in Oaxaca city, the Mezcal capital of Mexico. Mezcal, as I found out in Tulum, is not for me. The high alcohol content was very over powering and so I decided to not pursue any more of those in Oaxaca, but did manage to sip some good Mexican wine from Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California. But fear not, cause here is an excellent Mexico Mezcal guide to quench your thirst! This brings me to the end of the blog post on my Oaxaca food guide on finding the gems of Oaxacan cuisine. Do let me know if you manage to try all or few of these places and any other ones that we missed in this Oaxacan food specialities guide. Read Part 1 of my travel guide to Oaxaca here.
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