Over the past few years, Mexico has attracted increased attention as a tourism destination. Though the spotlight typically shines on world-class capital Mexico City or hipster beach town Tulum, the southeastern coastal state of Oaxaca, crowned by the colorful city of the same name, boasts a cache of cultural treasures that deserves far more consideration than it typically receives. Praised by Mexicans themselves as home to the country’s tastiest cuisine, Oaxaca City’s streets, markets and restaurants serve up delicious moles, tacos and more. Here’s what to eat when you’re there.
Known around the world for its smooth, rich texture and improbable melange of ingredients including nuts, dried chiles and cinnamon-spiked chocolate, mole negro is the glory of the Oaxacan kitchen. A glossy, deeply-flavored sauce that typically coats bone-in pieces of chicken, mole is a labor-intensive dish — and a good version of it is hard to forget. For an expert take, visit Las Quince Letras (Abasolo 300; lasquinceletras.mx) in the heart of the Centro.
Much of Mexico’s best food is found on the street, and in Oaxaca, the quintessential roadside snack is the tlayuda, a giant griddled flour tortilla that’s akin to a thin-crust pizza. The crispy tortilla is brushed with pork asiento (unrefined lard), slathered with creamy refried beans and topped with strands of Oaxacan string cheese before folded into a half-moon and toasted until the cheese melts, binding the whole thing together. One of the city’s best is found at the stand located at the corner of Bustamante and Francisco Javier Mina.
Many more of Oaxaca’s tastiest and most traditional dishes are found at food stalls located within the city’s covered markets. Inside, crowds of shoppers can be found taking a break over specialties that range from long-simmered soups and stews to icy, fruit-flavored nieves (ice creams).
The city’s most-frequented market is the Mercado 20 de Noviembre (corner of Flores Magon and Aldama), where the smoky pasillo de carnes asadas is a lunchtime can’t-miss. A long passageway is populated by vendors grilling up cuts of beef and pork over hot coals. The cooked-to-order meats are sold by the half-kilo and garnished with tortillas and grilled onions for a make-your-own-taco affair.
On Sundays, the must-visit market is a 45-minute bus ride outside of town, in the small neighboring village of Tlacolula de Matamoros (corner of Matamoros and Galeana). There, vendors from all over Oaxaca gather to hawk artisan tapestries and pottery, and food stalls serve hearty fare that fuels a long day of shopping. Head to Adolfa for exemplary barbacoa, or slow-roasted lamb: Fold the tender meat into tacos, and be sure to request a deep bowl of the rich consomé, or cooking liquid, for dipping.
Oaxaca is also home to several sensational restaurants, where you can enjoy a more leisurely meal at prices that would be a considered a bargain stateside.
Perhaps the most well-known of these is Los Danzantes (Alcala 403, losdanzantes.com), located smack-dab on the traffic-free street known as the Andador Turistico. In the laid-back, open-air dining room, chef Alejandro Piñón plates globally-inspired Oaxacan fare such as a shrimp tlayuda, built with blue corn masa and served with chintextle, a regional salsa of pounded dried shrimp, toasted chiles and pumpkin seeds.
A few blocks away at Origen (Hidalgo 820, en.origenoaxaca.com), chef Rodolfo Castellanos bolsters his Oaxacan flavors with locally-grown ingredients such as plantains, cactus and wild greens. The suckling pig, a stunningly tender house specialty, isn’t to be missed.
For decades, the spirit most associated with Mexico was tequila, that clear, agave-based liquor with a reputation for producing nasty hangovers. Today, though, Mexico’s drink of choice — and one that’s becoming more popular around the world — is mezcal. It’s also made from agave, but permeated by a subtle smokiness imparted by the roasting of the core, or pina, of the plant.
Oaxaca, with its long regional history of producing mezcal, is ground zero for the drink. Sip it slowly (no shots, please!) at Mezcaloteca (Reforma 506, mezcaloteca.com), a dim, refined house of reverence for the spirit. Another great option is the new Archivo Maguey (Murguia 218; facebook.com/archivomaguey), which focuses on the mezcals of Mixteca, Oaxaca.