Whichever way you look at it, Oaxaca, one of the thirty-one states that make up Mexico, is a delight. And its capital, Oaxaca de Juárez, a city that captivates with its pre-Hispanic magic, is the best destination to experience it first hand. There, the smells and flavors intensify and permeate your memory to remind you, after you leave, how much you feel the urge to return.
As travel companions, their food and drink, a generational treasure of traditional dishes that are preserved and reinvented with signature cuisine. Its moles, its chapulines, its corn, its antojitos, or its delicious mezcales are only a small part of where to start. To enjoy it calmly and know where to go, we recommend you not to get lost when you pass by.
Street food at all times
Mexico is a street food paradise, and Oaxaca, considered the culinary capital of the country, could not be less. Oaxaca's cuisine is present in its stalls, which occupy its streets and squares and congregate people at all times. The best thing you can do is walk through them in search of the many dishes they offer. A safe option is also to take a stroll through the traditional markets. November 20, a few meters from the Zócalo, is the most popular, but you can also visit others such as La Merced, or Benito Juárez.
During this gastronomic tour, you must keep in mind that in this land corn is the king the territory of Oaxaca has more types of corn than any other - and many of the elaborations you will find in the menu such as corn (the corn cob), memelas, totopos istmeños, many tamales or tlayudas are obtained from it. Be sure to try the following:
Tlayudas are perfect for any time of the day, it's a blunt bite as it's a large corn tortilla covered in lard, fried bean puree, Oaxacan quesillo, and tasajo (a dried beef).
Tamales here have their name, as they are wrapped in banana leaf and acquire a different flavor and size. Their filling varies, but there is no lack of cooked corn, which is usually accompanied by moles and meat.
The memelas are oval and somewhat thick tortillas, toasted or fried, covered with mashed beans and Oaxacan cheese, which can also be topped with crumbled pork and green sauce.
The chapulines (fried grasshoppers) are the perfect snack for between hours. They are cultivated in Oaxaca, as well as in other states, and are a source of protein and nutrients. There are several recipes to elaborate on them, but the normal thing is to sauté them with some garlic, lemon, and salt. For many Mexicans, they are an authentic delicacy and even occupy the most exclusive tables, so you know, wherever you go you do what you see.
Los Siete moles seems like the title of a movie, but no, it's the number of varieties of mole that the state of Oaxaca gathers one per region. This land is one of the cradles of this popular and venerated salsa and a great protagonist of its cuisine. It is a thousand-year-old preparation based on chiles, chocolate, nuts, and spices. And although there are seven types - red, coloradito, yellow, chichilo - difficult to find outside the state of Oaxaca, green, manchamantales, and black. The latter is the most acclaimed, made from 30 different ingredients.
To enjoy the best Oaxacan cuisine in places true to the tradition where ancestral recipes stick to the script, there are a few places you can go, but the following are always a safe bet.
This tortilleria and antojeria can be the ideal place to carry out what would be defined as an authentic breakfast of champions. Here, the king is corn and the queen, Gabriela Fernandez, who has designed a menu from this ingredient and with her work tries to rescue and give value to corn native to Oaxaca. When you try some of her many elaborations, such as quesadillas, tacos, memelas, telelas, or pozote, you will discover the many nuances that corn keeps and the importance it has as a base for so many dishes.
A temple of Oaxacan gastronomy where you will be able to delight yourself with one of its many moles - the rib with green mole is about to be served to a fan club - and other traditional dishes such as pumpkin guide soup.
Following the seasonality of the products, chef Pilar Cabrera prepares four different menus a year with the passion instilled in her by her grandmother's cooking and recipes and the wisdom that the experience has given her. Simple elaborations from local Oaxacan ingredients that are not far from their origins.
Las Quince Letras
A place of worship for one of the protagonists of Oaxacan gastronomy: the mole. Here, Chef Celia Florián demonstrates the mastery with which she develops these elaborations. With her incessant chup chup, at the end of the patio, is the casserole in which they are prepared, each one "with the exact quantity of each ingredient" as the expert emphasizes. Each accompanying a product - chicken, pork, or vegetables - that conjugates to perfection, enhancing, even more, its flavor.
If you still have plenty of time, remember to stop by Pan:am (Mariano Abasolo 103), to have your chapulines tortilla or Cuicatecos eggs for breakfast. In Boulenc (Porfirio Díaz 207) you'll not only find a magnificent daily baked bread, but you'll also find delicious sandwiches -such as its particular Banh mi with seasonal mushrooms- and pizzas. At mid-afternoon, you can visit La Mezcalerita (Macedonio Alcalá) to taste one of its many handmade Oaxacan beers or its pulque, an ancestral drink of pre-Hispanic origin that is now living its golden age, made from the fermentation of maguey.
Haute cuisine to reinterpret tradition
He tops the lists of recommendations and it's no mean feat. Casa Oaxaca is an institution in the city that offers a gastronomic experience that is worth going through. From its terrace, overlooking the church of Santo Domingo you can taste the tradition of Oaxacan cuisine in detail through dishes such as ceviche stuffed chili, golden tacos stuffed with duck with mole, or magnificent guacamole. All this is accompanied at all times by a sauce of miltomate and chili that season to your liking at your table.
Local ingredients and traditional recipes are the mainstays of Chef Rodolfo Castellanos' cuisine. An Oaxacan Umami strives to achieve this by filling the pantry with products he obtains from markets, ranches, farms, crops, and the seas of his land. Elegance, simplicity, and harmony to find with a tasting menu that includes such delicious dishes as a kid at low temperature, tamala pumpkin, a relish of capers, and coriander foam.
This pleasant space on the outskirts of the historic center promises a gastronomic adventure in the hands of Oaxacan Luis Arellano, who was Enrique Olvera's right-hand man in Pujol and then passed through Cosme (New York). After taking a closer look at the kitchen and dining room, through which the hens that are already like family are chickens, sitting at the table leads to a whole experience in which his creative cooking makes sense.
Endemic ingredients to make a tasting menu with surprising and sophisticated dishes such as lentil and nopal ceviche toast, yellow mole salad with mushrooms, and for dessert the sweet potato churro with apple cream, mango, and passion fruit. On Sundays, they serve brunch, which is also another delicious excuse to visit the restaurant.
The view from here is unbeatable, its terrace has the mountains and the church of Santo Domingo as a backdrop. There you can enjoy a pleasant evening with local dishes, paired with the rhythm of mezcal. An author's kitchen in charge of the chef José Manuel Baños, tanned in the kitchens of Arzak and Ferrán Adrià, that delights with plates like the memela of chicharrón of chop or the duck with a mole of peanut.
Where to have a good mezcal
Oaxaca is not conceived without mezcal, nor mezcal without Oaxaca. Of the nearly 270 varieties of agave, the most common, which forms the logo of Oaxaca is the Espadín. Depending on the zone of the state in which the different agaves have been cultivated, due to its land, the mezcal will acquire different notes.
The whole town is devoted to the recognition of this liquor that comes from the earth and to commemorate it they celebrate several festivities. During the Guelaguetza from 20 to 31 July, El Llano Park hosts La Fiesta del Mezcal, an event in which numerous presentations of this drink are exhibited and marketed, which has made Oaxaca famous.
And this past weekend the city hosted Vive Mezcal, International Mezcal Forum, an initiative that seeks to organize, promote and enhance the industry within and outside the country and that closed on Saturday with the Calenda del Mezcal. Calendas are a fundamental part of Oaxaca's festivities, a celebration charged with spiritual strength that runs through the streets to the beat of an orchestra.
When night falls, even if we don't fool ourselves, not everyone waits for it to happen, the mezcal festival begins and the cantinas and mezcalerías welcome the many lovers it has. These are some of the essential ones:
The perfect place to start the night with the perfect mezcal to make it happen. A small and modest place with nice staff that offers tastings to its customers to know some of its artisan mezcals.
A temple of worship where they dedicate themselves to promoting the work of the artisan mezcaleros of the more than 10,000 communities that make up the state. They have a special collection of maguey distillates that can be tasted while you soak up a good dose of mezcal wisdom. It is advisable to book before going.
City center Oaxaca
Barely a year old, this hotel, which is among the best in the country, has a master mezcalero that everyone wants to have close by. Luis Cartas, head of his bar, will help you choose the mezcal that best suits you, and will gladly give you one of his enriching "talks" about the agave and the 'elixir' that comes out of it. Ask him to prepare one of his famous cocktails, such as Santa Ana, with holy leaves and miltomate.
One hour from the city, you will find Santiago de Matatlán, another city dedicated in body and soul to the production of this agave liqueur. There you will find a multitude of palenques - artisan mezcal factories - where you will be able to personally experience the maguey distillation process and learn all the secrets it holds.
Even so, unfortunately, as mezcal has gained followers and tourism has grown, these palenques have abandoned handcrafted production, opting for a more industrial one and making these instructive visits a business that sometimes ends up disappointing. It is more than advisable to find trustworthy people who know how to lead you to palenques that still respect the ancestral and artisan techniques.