Food

Adventures in Dining, Oaxaca-Style

A massive meal at Comedor los Huamuches in Santo Tomás Jalieza
A massive meal at Comedor los Huamuches in Santo Tomás Jalieza.

Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland

One of the most effective ways to truly get to know a culture is to immerse your senses in the cornucopia of local delicacies that a region has to offer. Chefs, foodies and explorers with adventurous palates descend on the state of Oaxaca in droves in order to partake in an exhilarating assortment of impressive vittles. For those who are not familiar with Oaxacan cuisine, prepare to be floored by the seemingly endless delicacies that are found on every corner. From pricey fine dining to humble food carts, the feature below serves as a starter list for those who are just coming out of the gate as far as local cuisine goes, or those who have their preferred venues but are looking to try something different. Don’t see your favorite? Feel free to share in the comment box below, as this list can never be too long.

Barbacoa
This hearty offering is traditionally composed of slow roasted goat (chivo), sheep (borrego) or beef (res), which is simmered for hours in large pot (and sometimes a pit in the ground) until it falls off of the bone. Once the meat is tender, it is shredded and served with fresh tortillas, grated vegetables and a selection of salsas that can be added to taste.

Best bets: El Tule market (daily), Tlacolula Sunday market, Zaachila Thursday market

Chapulines
What is a popular and economical source of protein in Oaxaca? Why, grasshoppers, of course. Collected during specific times of the year, these zingy critters are cleaned and toasted on comals with garlic, lime juice and salt. Chapulines are ubiquitous in the local markets and are sorted into in a range of sizes from tiny (crispy) to large (chewy) and sold from large baskets. They are used for everything from filling in warm quesadillas with cheese to bags of snacks at local sporting events.

Best bets: Benito Juarez market, El Escapularío, 20 de Noviembre market

Chilaquiles
An excellent menu addition to use up kitchen leftovers, this popular breakfast item employs a base of lightly fried sliced tortillas with a choice of rich sauce, along with an expansive list of toppings that include roasted chicken, grilled beef, fried eggs, frijoles, crema, crumbled queso fresco, raw onion rings and sliced avocado.

Best bets: Casa Oaxaca Café Restaurant, Café 1886, Casa de Abuela

Chile Rellenos
Originally from Puebla, this classic Mexican dish blends locally grown chile de agua or poblano peppers with meat, vegetable or cheese stuffing, along with a light egg coating that is fried to crispy perfection and topped with a tomato-based sauce. In Oaxaca, these can often be found with picadillo filling, which is a mix of spices and minced pork, chicken or beef.

Best bets: Comedor Mary in Tlacolula, El Comedor Jaguar in Teotitlan del Valle, Comedor Colon in Villa de Etla

A choice of fillings at the Pochote market in Xochimilco.
A choice of fillings at the Pochote market in Xochimilco.

Empanadas
With varieties that are both savory and sweet, these turnovers consist of corn dough that is rolled flat and filled with meat, cheese, fruit, herbs and other delights. One of my top picks includes a pairing of quesillo cheese with fresh flor de calabeza (brilliantly-hued squash blossoms) that are served hot off of the comal and topped with spicy salsa.

Best bets: San Antonino on fiesta days, Mercado de 5 Señores, Pochote market in Xochimilco (Fridays and Saturdays)

Lovely little memelas on the comal at Pochote market in Xochimilco
Lovely little blue corn memelas on the comal at Pochote market in Xochimilco.

Memelas
These chewy corn cakes are toasted on a hot comal and topped with or without asiento (unrefined pork lard), refried beans, crumbled soft white cheese, along with possible additional toppings including everything from chorizo to potatoes. This simple fare is often eaten early in the day in order to stave off hunger pangs with a series of chewy, savory bites.

Best bets: Mercado de la Noria, Azucena Zapoteca, Comedor los Huamuches in Santo Tomás Jalieza

Mole
Thick, rich and slow-cooked, this complex sauce is generally divided into seven main types with ingredients that vary from chocolate to roasted nuts. Mole makes a regular appearance on lunch and dinner plates alike, serving as a silky blanket for chicken and a common filling for handmade tamales.

Best bets: Casa Oaxaca, La Biznaga, El Biche Pobre

Chicken-filled tacos dorados at Cafe Los Cuiles
Chicken-filled tacos dorados with fresh avocado at Cafe Los Cuiles.

Tacos Dorados
Occasionally referred to as flautas or taquitos, these finger-shaped rolled crispy tacos are usually stuffed with chicken, cheese or beef, and topped with shredded lettuce, cheese and guacamole. Both crunchy and delicious, they are the perfect afternoon or early evening snack.

Best bets: Cafe Los Cuiles, stand on the corner of Murgia and Pino Suarez (Saturdays), Luvina

Sopa
Sometimes, nothing is better than a hot bowl of soup, especially on a rainy day. Local varieties include everything from vegetable strewn chicken stocks to burbling tomato-based concoctions complete with whole shrimps that are cooked with searing hot stones in the pre-hispanic style.

Best bets: pozole at La Gran Torta, caldo de piedra in Tlalixtac de Cabrera, chicken tortilla soup at El Escapulario

Tamales
This traditional Mesoamerican treat is a classic portable snack that is doled out by the dozens from various street carts throughout the city, along with family dining tables during special occasions. The dish involves dough of masa mix (ground corn) that is combined with lard or vegetable shortening, wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves, and steamed until firm. Fillings depend per region, including a range of meat additions, salsa, mole, beans, cheese and dried fruit.

Best bets: Doña Genoveva at La Merced Sunday market, Doña Melisa at the Villa de Etla Wednesday market, various spots at the Ocotlan Friday market

A mini tlayuda with tasajo (beef) at I Love Tlayudas in La Noria
A mini tlayuda with tasajo (beef) at I Love Tlayudas in La Noria.

Tlayudas
Served both open-faced and folded for handier roadside eating, this iconic Oaxacan antojito (meaning ‘little cravings’), is stacked like a pizza on an enormous flour tortilla base, and layered with asiento and refried beans, quesillo string cheese, lettuce, tomato and avocado. Custom additions include chorizo sausage, tasajo beef, shredded chicken, cecina (chili encrusted pork), salsa and other enticing accoutrements. The final product is generally toasted over hot embers between two metal grills.

Best bets: green stand on Las Casas outside of the Benito Juarez market, I Love Tlayudas (various locations) which is worth the trip particularly for the toppings bar of fresh items, the shrimp tlayuda at Las Danzantes

Tortas
Popular during the day with both students and workers, these substantial sandwiches are assembled on an oblong crusty white bread roll and packed with a choice of ham, cheese, eggs, breaded milanesa meat, beans, assorted roasted meats, avocado, onion and hot sauce. They are served both cold and hot off of a sandwich press, and are the perfect choice to bring along on hikes or picnics.

Best bets: La Hormiga, La Gran Torta, Titos

This list is of course only a simple beginning to the extensive culinary repertoire of the state of Oaxaca. Also worth mentioning (and ingesting) are huitloche (a delicious fungus that grows on corn), elotes (ears of corn doused in mayo, cheese and chili), esquites (similar to elote, but in soup form in a cup), cocido (stew), enfrijoladas (enchiladas with black bean sauce), nieves (sherbets in fruity to creamy flavors – try leche quemada and tuna (the fruit, not the fish) together), carnes asadas (grilled meat and onions) and estofado (tomato-based stew with almonds and green olives), to name a few. That said, I have one final bit of parting advice that I would like to pass along regarding a visit to Oaxaca: come hungry.

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