Wednesday, June 12, 2024

What to eat in Oaxaca (and where to eat it)

For those who love Mexican food, Oaxaca is arguably the best place in the country to explore for a dash of culinary magic. When you’re visiting though, the wealth of options can be overwhelming. This all leads to one, vital question: How do you find the best food in Oaxaca?

I’ve found the only way to get to know Oaxaca is through enjoying their food and embracing their cultural traditions. Whether you prefer eating through Oaxaca via its street food stalls, markets, guided food tours, or at one of its many restaurants, every dish will make you feel like you’re in your grandmother’s home kitchen. 

Ingredients to prepare Oaxacan mole
While many regions of Mexico produce mole, Oaxaca probably has the most famous iterations of the sauce. (Los Danzantes/Facebook)

But the start of every flavorful journey begins with the first bite. If you plan to discover this special part of Mexico, here’s your guide to indulge in the Oaxacan magic!

What food to try when in Oaxaca?

If you’re like me and began learning about Oaxaca’s culinary tradition in shows like Street Food: Latin America, it’s easy to buy into the hype.

But the three main dishes to get you started on this food journey are the following:

Memelas

Memelas
Memelas, a personal favourite, are made of beans, cheese and meat in a fried tortilla. (Mireya Novo/Cuartoscuro)

Not to sound biased here, but this is my favorite Mexican street food. It’s a heavenly combination of an oval-shaped tortilla, refried beans, Oaxacan cheese, a little salt, and a choice of chicken, beef, or vegetables. You also can’t forget the salsa.

Different states have their take on this antojito (snack food), but Oaxaca has the most delicious ones.

Tlayudas

Known as the “Oaxacan pizza”, this is the most well-known dish in the region. Not only will you find these in markets and street food stalls, but also in fancy restaurants.

Naturally, it has many variations. I’ve had some innovative tlayuda dishes at modern restaurants in Oaxaca, as well as traditional versions at Mercado 20 De Noviembre.

Tlayudas
A delicious tlayuda, a local speciality that has to be tried at least once during a trip to Oaxaca. (Andrea Murcia/Cuartoscuro)

But in general, it comes in a big tortilla with refried beans, and a healthy balance of Oaxacan cheese (what else, right?), sliced meats, lettuce, tomatoes, and more. 

Yellow Mole

This is something you need to try at least once while in Oaxaca. I found a street food stall from the Netflix show Street Food: Latin America that specialized in it and was pleased with the result since it came wrapped in a world-class tortilla.

I was one of many people who came to that stall just for the yellow mole. Made with a loving combination of chiles, spices, tomatoes, garlic, onion, and more, this dinner-quality meal is as authentic as it gets.

Mezcal & Tejate

Mezcal is an acquired taste of liquor and isn’t produced anywhere outside Mexico. The spirit has become synonymous with the state and it’s a “welcome to Oaxaca” moment all visitors should try. You can find mezcal anywhere, especially if you’re staying downtown. You can also take a day trip to El Rey de Matatlán and see how the drink is traditionally is made at the source. 

If you’re not big on alcohol, tejate is another fantastic choice. Considered the “drink of the Gods” in Oaxaca, it has a sweet taste that can be enjoyed by all age groups. The most intriguing thing about tejate is its history, tracing back 300 years before the Spanish arrived on Mexican soil. 

Where to find restaurants, markets, and tours

Mexican woman serving tejate
(Max Núñez/Cuartoscuro)

Not that you need to try hard once you’re in Oaxaca to find good breakfast, lunch, and dinner spots, but there are some places you’d be crazy to ignore. 

If you’re a traveler who loves to explore food markets, the two main ones are Mercado 20 De Noviembre and Benito Juarez. Both places boast so many amazing food and drink options that you could spend hours sampling everything. 

The amount of restaurants here is endless if that’s more your thing. Here’s a quick list of wonderful options I can vouch for: 

Los Danzantes 

Los Danzantes is the winner of a Michelin star, and is considered by many to be Oaxaca’s best eatery (although that’s a very bold claim to make in a city like Oaxaca).

Address: C. Macedonio Alcalá 403-interior 4, RUTA INDEPENDENCIA, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico.

Catedral Restaurante 

Huevos charros
Huevos Charros (Restaurante Catedral/Instagram)

Address: C. de Manuel García Vigil 105, RUTA INDEPENDENCIA, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico.

Casa Oaxaca

Address: Constitución 104-A, RUTA INDEPENDENCIA, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca de Juárez, Oax., Mexico.

If you’re too indecisive on where to eat, don’t fear! Food tours like this one are your best friend. You’ll be introduced to all the best spots and feel more comfortable navigating your surroundings for the rest of your holiday. 

Tamale with Mixe meat and yellow mole with Pitiona.
Tamale with Mixe meat and yellow mole with Pitiona. (Casa Oaxaca/Instagram)

Next stop, Oaxaca!

I could easily write an article double the size of this about the food options you’ll find in Oaxaca. Along with the restaurants, markets, and street food stalls listed here, there’s so much variety that I wouldn’t be surprised if your foodie journey differs from mine. 

Anywhere I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

Ian Ostroff is an indie author, journalist, and copywriter from Montreal, Canada. You can find his work in various outlets, including Map Happy and The Suburban. When he’s not writing, you can find Ian at the gym, a café, or anywhere within Mexico visiting family and friends.

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