15 Memorable Things to Do in Oaxaca, Mexico's Culinary Capital
Oaxaca has soared to the top of must-see-destination lists in recent years, and the incredible food is one of the biggest reasons. While Mexico offers an amazing diversity of excellent food, Oaxaca -- not just the city but the entire southwestern state -- is widely considered the country's culinary capital. From delicious food traditions, both ancient and modern, to a rich cultural history, amazing mezcal, beautiful artwork, and relaxing accommodations, here's why Oaxaca should be on your bucket list of travel destinations.
You can find amazing street food all over Oaxaca, but if you're looking to sample some of the best traditional eats, head to Itanoní. While the casual, open-to-the-street setting might be easily overlooked, the beloved eatery owned by Amado Ramírez Leyva offers worthwhile eats and celebrates the diversity of corn, sourcing from single estates in the region. The fresh masa made from that corn is used to make handmade tortillas for quesadillas and tacos, as well as memelas (hand-patted, doughy cakes with different toppings), tamales, and more. Weekends can get busy, so try to go during the week.
If you haven't yet discovered the wonders of mezcal -- the distilled spirit made in a variety of styles with over 30 varieties of agave -- Oaxaca is one of the best places for an introduction. Roughly 85 percent of all mezcal is made in the state, and some of the best comes from Mezcal Union, a forward-thinking company that utilizes sustainable practices, both environmental and economic, to support the rural communities that make the mezcal. If you're able to arrange a visit to one of its palenques (distilleries), you'll get an amazing behind-the-scenes look at the complex production process. Or you can always try some at a variety of bars around Oaxaca.
One of the first restaurants to put Oaxaca on the international fine dining map, Casa Oaxaca showcases the rich food traditions and ingredients from different regions of the state with avant-garde techniques. Located inside the stylish hotel of the same name, the restaurant is helmed by celebrated chef Alejandro Ruiz. The menu varies seasonally with highlights that include ceviche, wild game, and seafood, and new spins on traditional dishes, like a tlayuda (essentially a Oaxacan version of pizza) with grilled ribeye. Be sure to save room for desserts like the guava tart with rose petal ice cream.
While tacos in a backyard may sound like a casual, ho-hum affair, a meal at Criollo is anything but ordinary. The restaurant is helmed by the talented chef Enrique Olvera, who is also behind the celebrated Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme in New York (maybe you saw him on season two of "Chef's Table"), along with chef Luis Arellano. Inside a colonial-era mansion, patrons make their way through the kitchen to the courtyard dining area and see blue corn tortillas be made by hand. The seven-course tasting menu changes frequently and features innovative presentations of local flavor, like tacos with wild greens or a tamale made of huitlacoche, a corn fungus coveted like truffles by those in the know. Criollo also offers an excellent brunch.
If you spend any amount of time in Oaxaca, you'll want to try a variety of mezcals, and there's no better place to taste and learn about the spirit than Mezcaloteca. Owned by a charming husband-and-wife duo, this tasting room takes its name from the combination of mezcal and biblioteca (library), so you can expect quite a bit of information about the wide variety of production techniques and producers, and how to properly taste mezcal while sampling three highlights. Be sure to make a reservation in advance.
For the uninitiated, mole is a complex, pre-Hispanic sauce that, depending on the style, is made from a variety of chiles, spices, seeds, nuts, dried fruit, and sometimes chocolate. It's one of Oaxaca's most iconic dishes. The cozy and casual, 100-seat Las Quince Letras, with its beautiful patio, is the perfect place to sample a variety of moles with various proteins, along with other regional specialties.
After indulging in some of Oaxaca's legendary cuisine, you're bound to want to bring the experience home. There are a number of excellent cooking classes available in the region, including the popular Casa de Sabores, which features a market tour, mezcal tasting, and a meal after the lesson. Alma de Mi Terra offers an intimate experience, also with a market visit, mezcal, and a multi-course meal. For a slightly larger group, try Seasons of My Heart.
An essential Oaxacan breakfast option, chocolate de agua con pan de yema is a cup or bowl of bittersweet chocolate with water or milk that's served hot, alongside a flaky, airy bread made with egg yolks. A crunchy exterior makes it perfect for dipping in the hot chocolate. Pan de yema is particularly popular around Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities, but you'll find it year-round in most markets. Another breakfast option worth trying is tejate, a traditional, non-alcoholic beverage that's made with toasted corn, mamey seeds, fermented cacao seeds, cacao flowers, and water and served in a bowl.
Quesillo -- a stringy, semi-hard cheese that's creamy like mozzarella but has its own distinct flavor not unlike unaged Monterey Jack -- is another Oaxacan staple to sample. Chances are it will be hard to avoid. Typically sold in a ball of long ribbons, the easily melted cheese is often served in quesadillas, inside squash blossoms, or on its own to nibble while drinking.
Don't shy away from trying chapulines, grasshoppers that are typically fried and seasoned with chiles, lime, garlic, onion, and salt. Another Oaxacan staple, this cheap and abundant protein has a briny taste and satisfying crunch, and is bound to pleasantly surprise you. Chapulines are often eaten on their own or rolled in a tortilla, and you'll likely discover that they pair so well with beer, you'll gladly trade them for peanuts. You'll encounter them nearly everywhere, including markets, but aim to try them first at a place like Las Quince Letras.
Another of Oaxaca's popular street foods, tlayudas consist of a very large, slightly crisp and charred tortilla that's often topped with asiento (toasted, unrefined lard), refried beans, and quesillo, along with optional meats such as chorizo, tasajo (a thin-sliced beef popular in the region), or cecina (thinly sliced pork). They're usually finished with shredded lettuce or cabbage, avocado, and salsa. While they're great anytime, tlayudas especially hit the spot after a few rounds of mezcal.
Bustling and colorful markets can be found across the state of Oaxaca, many within the capital city. The indoor Mercado Benito Juarez is one of the more popular, where you'll find piles of fresh, local produce, dried chiles, mole pastes, meats and cheeses, and coffee beans, along with woven baskets and other goods. You'll also encounter an array of street food, including tlayudas, chapulines, and fresh fruit juices. Just next door is Mercado 20 de Noviembre, which features more artisanal crafts from clothing and shoes to household goods, as well as more prepared foods.
Oaxaca features a dazzling array of historic churches, as well as museums and art galleries that are worth exploring when you're not busy eating and drinking. Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, a 17th-century church with Baroque flourishes that honors Oaxaca's patron saint, is a great place to start. Learn about Oaxacan history and culture at the research library, La Biblioteca de Investigación Juan de Córdova, and see new works of art at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
You'll definitely want to plan excursions from the city of Oaxaca to explore the surrounding regions. Just outside the city, Monte Albán is considered the region's most significant archeological site, dating back to 500 B.C. and used by the Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs. It features pyramid-like structures, ball courts, and other ancient ruins. The ancient Zapotec site of Mitla is also worth a visit. Another worthwhile day trip is Hierva de Agua, a stunning sight of calcified waterfalls and swimmable mineral pools, just southwest of Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is known for vibrantly colorful festivals, featuring plenty of music, dancing, and food. Día de los Muertos, when the deceased are honored with altars covered in food, flowers, and mementos, is probably the best-known and takes place Nov. 1-2. Fiesta Guelaguetza, which takes place the last two Mondays in July, features indigenous costumed dances and music. Holiday festivals run from mid-December through the beginning of January.
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