Tuesday, July 23, 2024

How to experience the best of Oaxaca’s street food scene

The smell of fresh corn tortillas permeates the streets of Oaxaca city, as people hustle to get tacos from their favorite stall before it runs out. Known as the cradle of corn, the state is renowned for its cuisine because of its history of domesticating this staple, Oaxaca gastronomy has developed from deep ancestral knowledge with a blend of Indigenous, Spanish, and other international influences. Visitors to this great city all have one question though: Where is the best street food in Oaxaca, and how do they find it?

A great place to start exploring Oaxacan street food is in the city’s markets. Most are open every day from dawn ‘till dusk, although I recommend going in the mornings. Dive in and you can find a rainbow of fresh produce and beautiful artisan goods.

Memelas Doña Vale has become something of an international sensation thanks to her appearance on the Netflix show “Street Food Latin America.” (Anna Bruce)

Which Oaxaca street food markets are best to visit? 

My favorite market spot is the food court at the Mercado Merced, off Calle Murguía. The first tables you come to are catered by Fonda Rosita. The family makes amazing chilaquiles that come still bubbling in a casserole dish: layers of tortilla chips, herbs and cheese in spicy red or green sauce. I usually get my chilaquiles with a couple of fried eggs on top.

The largest market in Oaxaca is the Central de Abastos. It’s home to a huge expanse of stalls, more or less organized into different sections such as fruit, flowers, clothes and carpentry. There are also some great spots to get classic street food. The sprawling market can be a little difficult to navigate at times, so it’s helpful to explore with a guide who can help you start out picking from the wealth of different options available. 

Recently Netflix shows such Street Food Latin America have highlighted the food of Doña Vale. She makes delicious memelas, a perfect morning snack. Memelas are a small, soft corn base spread with refried beans topped with crumbled queso fresco or stringy quesillo. One from Doña Vale will run you between 20 and 30 pesos each.

Tlayudas

Tlayudas are an iconic Oaxacan street food. My favorite tlayuda spot, Dos Cielos, makes an awesome one with ribs, folded and grilled over a flame. You can also pick up tlayudas in the markets, but these are usually open faced and can be a little dry or chewy to my taste. 

A Oaxacan tlayuda
A mouth watering Oaxacan tlayuda with cecina, tasajo and chorizo.

A famous place to be immersed in the smell of barbecue is the Pasillo de Humo, or Smoke Corridor, on Calle 20 de Noviembre. Walking through this area, you can immediately see where the name comes from. The air is full of smoke and the smell of cooking meat is all around as each vendor tries to entice you to their spot.

A treat to have after a big plate from the Pasillo de Humo is a cup of cold tejate from La Flor de Huayapam. Tejate is a pre-Columbian drink made from maize, cacao, mamey pits and cacao flower, served in a beautifully painted jicara gourd for 20 pesos. 

Tamales

Tamales are made from masa, a dough of nixtamalized corn, usually with some kind of filling such as mole. A great way to try Oaxacan mole on the move!  

One of the best places to get tamales is the Sanchez Pascuas market. Nestled close to the entrance, steam pours from a big cooking pot. You can grab a stool and squeeze up alongside the pot to eat them there and then, piping hot, or have them bundled up in paper to take away. The chicken amarillo tamales served inside a corn husk are delicious, as are the rich black mole ones served inside a fresh banana leaf. 

Mercado 20 de noviembre, Oaxaca
The Mercado 20 de Noviembre in Oaxaca city is THE destination for street food adventurers. (Facebook)

Other popular tamale fillings include Rajas which are roasted poblano peppers, beans and a Oaxacan herb called chipil.

Tacos

The street tacos you typically find in Oaxaca are rolled in soft tortillas sometimes referred to as blandas. Find the best in front of Carmen Alta church on the corner of García Vigil and Jesús Carranza.

Tacos del Carmen is a Oaxaca institution. They have been serving tacos and quesadillas of chicken tinga, chorizo with potato, squash blossom and mushroom since 1977. You can get a glass of agua de jamaica to go with your tacos, or grab a mezcal margarita from La Popular next door. These tacos run out, so don’t go too late. 

If you’re looking for a fix later in the day, Tacos Roy or La Flamita Mixe offer great al pastor tacos. Carving the meat straight off the ‘doner’ like trompo, this style stemming from Lebanese roots.

In business for almost 50 years, Tacos del Carmen sells out fast. Get there early to guarantee a chance to try them. (Tacos del Carmen/Instagram)

Late night tacos at Lechoncito del Oro are essential. These are tacos filled with succulent slow-roasted suckling pig. The loaded tostadas are also amazing, if a little difficult to eat after a few drinks. 

Desserts

Once you have filled up,  you might be looking for dessert. The streets of Oaxaca, of course, have plenty to offer. 

During the day it’s well worth visiting the Plaza de las Nieves in front of the Basilica de la Soledad. Nieves are ice cream and can be either water or milk based. The flavor options are endless: some are to be expected, such as fruit, cacao or even mezcal. Others require a bit more thought, such as quesillo, tuna or the mysterious “Beso de Oaxaca.”

Grabbing a box of fruit with lime and chili, or a roasted banana slathered in condensed milk from roving vendors are also great ways to get a sugar fix. You’ll hear them coming by the sound of the steam whistle.

Chefs and foodies have long been making the pilgrimage to Oaxaca City to experience the profound flavors. Michelin has awarded stars to Oaxacan restaurants and chefs. However, there is more than just fine dining to enjoy in Oaxaca. Quite simply, the street and market food here is some of the best in the world!

Anna Bruce is an award-winning British photojournalist based in Oaxaca, Mexico. Just some of the media outlets she has worked with include Vice, The Financial Times, Time Out, Huffington Post, The Times of London, the BBC and Sony TV. Find out more about her work at her website or visit her on social media on Instagram or on Facebook.

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