There have been countless times when I have reflected on a past meal and said to myself, "I remember when I ate..." and simply beam in recalling that memory. The time I finally gave in, and where I learned to like, mushrooms in Italy. The time I found myself in a dark, smokey Shanghai ally, where I sat in mini chairs, with a mini table, to eat fresh steamed mystery dumplings I ordered by pointing, nodding, and smiling. Sigh.
As a lover of food and the experiences collected with them, I knew I wanted to check out Oaxaca, Mexico thanks to the Chef's Table episode on Chef Enrique Olvera: he endearingly boasts Oaxaca as a place of inspiration for him, where one of kind dishes are found. I was ready and willing to visit what is considered Mexico's food capital!
A week in Oaxaca was just what I needed to eat at every place I wanted to experience, explore outside of the city, and sit in the Zocalo to watch life go by. Every person I encountered was warm and welcoming, and I definitely cried during my last stroll in the city; I was so sad for my trip to be over but so grateful to have experienced this amazing part of Mexico.
Below are a few of my trip's highlights in Oaxaca!
My heart literally pitter patters at the thought of eating at Casa Oaxaca. Everyone wants to sit on the rooftop that overlooks the Church of Santo Domingo; I did so for dinner and lucky me, literally had fireworks going off during my meal! I also had lunch on the first floor and found the experience to be just as amazing. Table side made fresh salsa accompanied with a massive tostada top with crumbled queso fresco starts your meal on the right foot, and I highly recommend the mezcalinis. Casa Oaxaca was the highlight sit down restaurant for me!
What to eat: The menu is full of traditional Oaxacan dishes! Some of our favorite items included:
- Tlayuda Tradicional with chorizo. This traditional Oaxacan dish is a large folded over tortilla with a variety of fillings, from cheese to mole to squash blossoms.
- Tostadas de atun, or tuna tostadas.
- The duck taquitos, pictured below, covered in to-die-for mole
- Ensalada de nopales, or cactus salad, which meshes nopales, beans, grilled avocado, and more in a mouth watering dish.
What to know: You absolutely need a reservation for dinner, especially if you want to secure seats on the rooftop. Also, come hungry.
Casa Oaxaca, Calle La Constitucion 104A, 68000 Oaxaca
'Taco Ally' at 20 de Noviembre Market
20 de Noviembre is a traditional Mexican market where you pick out grilled taco meat from one of many meat vendors in the long corridor, hence 'taco ally,' and enjoy your tacos. Simple in theory, a bit more complicated in execution when you walk in, and at peak times, face chaos: everyone wants to help assist you. Initially overwhelming, but an absolute must-do because everything is so fresh, delicious, you're likely to end up sharing a table with locals, and the intensity is exciting.
What to know: Follow these steps and you'll enjoy your tacos stress-free!
- Walk in, grab a basket, pick a stand, and select your meat and quantity. We really liked the cecina enchilada (adobo marinated pork), and you may also ask to have onions or other veggies they may have on hand to be grilled. Pay for your meat directly with the vendor.
- Walk back to the entrance and have one of the gentlemen coordinating the family style seating area seat you.
- Once seated is where you order fresh tortillas, beverages, and a variety of toppings, from fresh cut limes to salsa picante to pickled carrots from the vendors walking from table to table offering their specific product. You pay each vendor for the goods they have sold you.
- Your meat will be delivered to your table, and it's time to ensemble your tacos and enjoy!
20 de Noviembre, Miguel Cabrera 120 Col. Centro, 68000 Oaxaca
Fundacion En Via Tour
In doing my research on Oaxaca, I came across Fundacion En Via, a non-profit that provides micro financing and support to women in Oaxaca and its surrounding area to run sustainable businesses. As a woman business owner myself, I was fascinated and thrilled at the idea of taking an En Via tour to visit and learn about some of these women.
There were 11 guests and two English and Spanish speaking tour guides, who were THE nicest, and together in a van we made stops to five different women's businesses in two villages outside of Oaxaca.
One stop was in a small village where we were welcomed into a woman's home and restaurant where she personally served us lunch and told us the great impact accountability and micro financing has provided her: she has been able to build a cement floor for the restaurant and hopes to extend the roof as her next investment. She dreams of one day having a map on her wall and having every person who visits note where they are from.
We moved onto Teotitlan del Valle, a popular community known for it's woven rugs, and where we were welcomed into the home and workspace of a woman who have been weaving since she was a little girl. She was extremely proud of the new business cards she had just received, in fact her first business cards ever! These women are hustling to make it work for themselves and their families; I have to say that this entire experience was humbling and one of the top highlights of our trip to Oaxaca.
What to know:
- To date, tours are only held on Thursday and Saturdays, so we plan accordingly.
- Carve out a full day for this: the tour leaves Oaxaca at noon and returns in the evening.
- There was one rug in particular that caught my eye, and someone bought it before I made up my mind. I don't live with many regrets, but I still think about this rug! I could have known who made it and where it came from! Moral of the story: see and like a rug? Buy it.
From the street, we saw this really cute room with colorful jars lining the walls. With no sign on the exterior, I hesitantly walked in and surprisingly found myself in the health food store, Suculenta. Selling organic jams, oils, pickled veggies, cacao and more, the owner and maker of these goods, Paulina, is there making all of these organic goodies right there in shop and welcomes you taste test anything!
What to buy: Everything here makes the perfect gift, but the sweet pickles were my favorite! You can stock up on a lot of small sized jars to maximize the variety of goods you bring home!
Suculenta, Porfirio Díaz #207-G Colonia Centro, 68000 Oaxaca
When in Mexico, I am always seeking the best pan dulce because hands down, I love bread. Warm, fresh bread right of the oven? Even better, and this is what Pan:Am delivers! Pan:Am is part bakery, part coffee shop, part sit down café located in the center of town.
What to order: Their Oaxacan chocolate croissant and their cream cheese and fruit filled pastry are musts. Perfectly flakey, not too buttery, and even better warm!
Pan:Am, Av. Belisario Dominguez 809, Col. Reforma, 68050 Oaxaca
Museo de la Culturas de Oaxaca
My jaw dropped and my eyes widened. "I love it. I love it SO much," were my initial words upon walking into the this museum, and Chris said, "I knew you would." The long, multi floor corridors with beautifully arched, tall ceilings are stunning and were immediately added to my 'wedding portrait dream locations' list: simply classic and bright! As my partner, Chris knows the inner workings of my creative side and ensured we visited this museum because he knew this backdrop would make me so happy.
Aesthetics aside, the massive museum covers the history of Oaxaca and how its cultures were shaped and formed with a number of accompanying artifacts.
What to know: Most if not all descriptions are in Spanish, and even as a native speaker, I couldn't read and decipher everything as fast as I could in English. The Museo does give you great views of Plaza Santo Domingo and the respective signature Oaxacan church.
Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, Macedonio Alcalá s/n, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca
Cafe Nuevo Mundo
Recommended to me by a local, this independently owned cafe is known for it's hot chocolate, roasts coffee on site, and offers pastries as well as an extensive food menu. I was welcomed by friendly barristers each time we visited, all eager to give me recommendations on their specialties.
What to order:
- 'Chocolate Oaxaqueno con espresso' aka Oaxacan hot chocolate with espresso, pictured below.
- Caramel banana frappe, also pictured below.
- The Chai Diablo
Cafe Nuevo Mundo, M. Bravo 206, Oaxaca
A few More Highlights
- San Martín Tilcajete is a must! Known for its community of wood carvers of beautiful alebrijes, brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of both animals and fantastical creatures, Jacobo y Mari is the must-see shop. They create small, hand held sized figures to life sized sculptures. The shop tour guides walk you through the alebrije making process and you are able to see artists carve and paint there too!
- When in Oaxaca, you must drink mezcal! As a mezcal novices, I found the best place for education and tastings was at Mezcaloteca. Appointments are required at this bar where the servers individually go over the history, traditions, and ‘how-to’ taste mescal with you.
- I had a private driver take me to Monte Alban, an archaeological site right outside of the city. Come early! I arrived at 8am, was the first one there, and avoided the crowds by the bus loads who arrived around 9am.
- I stayed at Quinta Real Oaxaca. I considered it to be in the perfect location - walking distance to everything, and its grounds are beautiful with fountains and natural light everywhere. The rooms were a bit small and as a former convent, the walls lacked insulation of noise, but we would definitely stay here again.
Oaxaca will be a place that I will have many “I remember when we ate…” Hasta la proxima! Until next time! - Evelyn