Oaxaca is a food city.
Almost any market in Oaxaca will have food stalls open during the day, but probably the most well-known is Mercado 20 de Noviembre, located only a few blocks from the Zocalo; not to be confused with Mercado Benito Juarez, which is across the road to the north, but isn’t a food-specific market. Here you’ll find a sampling of everything listed in this post, so if you’re short on time, this would be the place to go. However, simply having the best choices doesn’t necessarily mean the best quality. While there wasn’t ever a bad meal had there, we’ve found much better elsewhere in Oaxaca.
One thing I cannot stress enough, is don’t be scared of street food! Sure, while fancier restaurants with brigades of professional cooks can and do produce excellent results, you’ll be paying for everything that comes along with it. Eating on the street is always cheaper, and in many cases more authentic than what you’ll find in a restaurant. Yes, you will see meat hanging out in the open, un-refrigerated. Just trust the locals, if you see a street cart with a bunch of locals eating, you’re usually fine.
So without wasting any more time, let’s get to the good stuff.
MemelasProbably the simplest of snacks found around town, typically eaten earlier in the day. A thick, freshly made corn tortilla, topped with refried beans, cheese, and anything else you feel. Although our favourite is the basic, just beans and cheese, topped with whatever salsas are at hand.
A little note on the cheese. Typically (at least what we’ve encountered) this isn’t the stringy quesillo or the soft, crumbled queso fresca; it’s almost like a thick, salty cream. It’s just thick enough to keep it’s shape, but still runny enough to act almost like a sauce. It’s truly a thing of beauty.
Think that chicken tortilla soup you get at your local chain restaurant is legitimate? Think again; pozole is the real deal. Although reminiscent of what might be familiar to you, it’s so much more complex. Pozole begins with a very flavourful broth made with either chicken or pork and hominy (dried corn kernels treated with alkali) flavoured with different spices. The soup is then topped with shredded meat of your choice, fresh onions, radishes, cabbage, cilantro; served with crispy fried tortillas, fresh lime wedges, and whatever condiments and salsas are on hand.
If this doesn’t bounce you back to life after an evening of mezcal indulgence, nothing will. The best one we found was at Tacos Roy, and while this is a restaurant with several locaions, unlike chains in most countries the quality varies significantly from one to the next. Our favourite without a doubt is this location on Calle Azucenas.
MoleOaxaca is known for their mole, in fact along with Puebla to the north, this is where the dish was created. You’ll find mole on every website describing Oaxacan food, and on nearly every menu of any restaurant in town. There are few foods I’ve tried with such incredible depth of flavour, so many layers, each one more difficult to pick out from the next.
Typically known for having a chocolate base such as mole negro, rojo and coloradito, there are also several other, lesser-known varieties. The remaining four styles from Oaxaca include Amarillo, Verde, Chichilo, and Manchamantal; and feature ingredients such as chorizo grease or beef stock, fruits, nuts and seeds, or chilis, herbs and spices. Whether using it as a base for a soup, stewing chicken, or as a sauce over rice; it’s not only delicious, but incredibly versatile.
Much like the curries of India, these are just the basic recipes. Every home, every restaurant, and every shop will have their own unique versions; so on the off-chance your first sampling of this incredible sauce doesn’t quite grab you, be sure to give it a second (or third) chance.
EloteAlmost everyone loves corn on the cob, or at least corn in general, but it’s gotta be slathered in butter, salt, and pepper. In Oaxaca, they’re famous for their street corn, whether grilled or boiled, on the cob or sliced into a cup, you’ll find it everywhere, but they don’t waste their time on simplicities like butter and salt. For ease of eating-while-walking, we usually opted for the cup; which was a layered masterpiece of heart-stopping goodness. Starting with a scoop of corn, then a big scoop of mayonnaise, and some crumbled queso fresco, crushed chilis, and lime juice. Repeat once or twice more, and you’ve got one of the best and – at around 10-15 pesos – cheapest corn dishes you’ll ever have.
Keep in mind, this is mostly an evening snack. We encountered it during the day when Dia de los Muertos was going on, but outside of the festival, it’s only been at night.
ChapulinesThis is a tricky one, it’s a bit of a mind-over-matter situation; chapulines – or roasted crickets – are found at every market and on roadside stalls all over town. We’ve eaten plenty of bugs in our past travels, but these ones were actually tasty. It’s not just a “watch the gringo eat the bugs” thing, the crickets are roasted with lime, salt and spices, giving them not only a crisp texture, but a pretty decent flavour. They’re treated almost as potato chips, a quick and inexpensive snack while out around town.
On the streets, you can either buy a small bag for a few pesos, or order them in a quesadilla. We opted for the bag, and made the quesadilla at home, since we had the ingredients already. The taste is quite alright, nothing great or outstanding, but very decent and definitely worth trying. The mental game of eating bugs is the part that most people have an issue with, but as long as you can get past that, it’s just food!
This was probably my first food-love when we arrived in Oaxaca. Kylee somehow heard about this cart selling these incredible sandwiches, and we were completely blown away. We’ve tried several varieties from different restaurants, but our favourite is still La Hormiga Torta’s cart near Jardín Conzati. Really, a torta is just any sandwich, but what makes these stand out are the combination of the perfect buns, rich fillings and the pickles. You’ll find torta carts and restaurants scattered all over town, and all contain relatively the same things: a spread – either mayo, refried beans, or both; cheese – either stringy quesillo or a crumbled queso fresco; eggs and/or meat – chorizo, cured ham, pork, beef or chicken. Other toppings may include avocado, tomatoes, or grilled onions and peppers. And always served with pickles: occasionally whole pickled jalapenos, but typically the onion-carrot-jalapeno mix you find everywhere.
If eating at La Hormiga Torta, be sure to order the Cubano. Definitely our favourite torta in town!
One of our favourite things to grab while wandering through the markets in Oaxaca. Quite simply, it’s essentially a Mexican flatbread. A large tortilla grilled until almost crisp over charcoal, topped with refried beans, lard, stringy Oaxacan queso, cabbage or lettuce, sliced avocado, tomatoes, and meat of your choice. Most often, you’ll find these served open-faced, which are actually a little tricky to eat, as they are usually around 12-14 inches in diameter – trying to tear pieces of the crisp base usually results in quite the mess. Occasionally though, they’re served folded in half; if it doesn’t come folded, do yourself a favour and do it before anything else. You’ll thank us later.
Our favourite was from a street cart on Calle Las Casas, near Benito Juarez Market. And like most stalls around town, you’ll find a similar selection of salsas to tweak it to your liking, and you will get messy.
TacosI mean come on. I think this goes without saying, we’re in Mexico after all. Tacos are everywhere, and they’re ridiculously good. They all start with the simple base of a warm, freshly made corn tortilla, and filled with – like many other dishes – your choice of meat. The meat selections vary between carts and restaurants, but most often you’ll find grilled beef or pork. For the more adventurous type you can also find other, more unique parts of the animal such as ear, tongue, and even cartilage if that’s your thing.
One style unique to Oaxaca and Central Mexico is Tacos al Pastor, which is spiced pork on a rotating spit. If you’re familiar with seeing the spinning meat in a shawarma, donairs, or kebab shop, you know what I’m talking about; and this is no coincidence, as this cooking style was brought to Mexico from Lebanese immigrants.
While the options and combinations of flavours are seemingly infinite, after sampling a vast variety of types, we settled on simplicity. More often than not, the less complicated something is, the better the result. Warm tortillas, filled with seasoned beef and pork, topped with fresh onions, cilantro, and guacamole, with the addition of a few pickles and condiments. Few things in life are as good as that.
In both our humble opinions the best tacos not only in Oaxaca, but the best we’ve ever eaten, are those found at Taquería El Torito Norteño, up on Heroica Escuela Naval Militar. The perfectly flavoured meats are good enough, but they’ve got this charred onion relish that we haven’t found anywhere else, that just amplifies the charcoal flavour of the grilled meats. If you only eat tacos at one place, eat them at here!
CondimentsEvery restaurant or cart has their own different versions and selection of condiments. Now I’m not talking just a plain old jar of salsa, or that flavourless guacamole you buy in the grocery store. These are a kick to the face with flavour! Just a few examples you’ll find: Pico de gallo, tomatillo salsa, pureed habanero and garlic sauce, charred onions and jalapenos, chipotle puree, smooth and tangy guacamole, pickled red onions with habaneros… the list goes on. Just understand that depending on where you go, you’re likely to find some version of the above mentioned salsas so you can fine-tune your meal to your taste.
The food scene in Oaxaca is one of strongest I’ve ever encountered, and this is only a mere sampling of what the city has to offer. After five weeks we’ve barely scratched the surface, and will be missing the wonderful cuisine immensely.
Whether you come to Oaxaca for the sights and find yourself enamoured with the food, or you come to Oaxaca with food as your purpose; you will not leave disheartened.
“Food has power. It could inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight, and impress… It has the power to please me.”Anthony Bourdain