I absolutely fell in love with Oaxaca ( pronounced “wuh-HAH’-kuh” for those not familiar,) though I feel like I say that about every Mexican city that I visit. I found it so warm and welcoming, with the nicest people and such a festive atmosphere in the evenings. We managed to miss the annual teacher’s strike that takes place in the Zocolo each May by one week. This may have contributed to the festive mood somewhat, as the local people seemed generally happy to have the month-long “tent city” cleared from their central gathering place and the vendors and businesses return.
Friends who have been to Oaxaca all offer the same bit of consistent advice. “Go to EAT!” And eat, I did! Unfortunately, my poor brother Don was still suffering “stomaco” issues, but like a good sport, he still allowed me to shepherd him to every single one of the restaurants on my “must visit” list.
Here were a few of my favorite memories, in order of appearance. 😉
Casa Oaxaca – I LOVED this place! Our meal started out with fresh tomatillo salsa made table-side with mortar and pestle, served with a traditional crispy Tlayuda (fried tortilla covered in pork fat and crumbled cheese.) We shared an appetizer of squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta, and an entree of duck breast in almond mole, which was “lick-the-plate” good! This was my first time to sample Mezcal served as a cocktail, martini-style, with ginger and lime and sugared rim. Dessert was a dense but satisfying banana flan, served with two spoons. Everything was delicious here, and service was impeccable. The ambiance was accentuated by the rain outside as raindrops fell in the courtyard while notes from a Spanish guitar quartet echoed up the white stucco walls.
Carne Asados Hall in the 21 Novembre Market — This was a culinary experience to remember! An entire row of meat stalls, one after the other, each with a little hardwood charcoal grill built in. You pick your fresh raw meat displayed overhead in the stall, then go grab a bench at the crowded wooden table and wait for it to be grilled while you watch. Also on offer are small trays of little grilled “cebollitas” or green onions, fresh radishes in limon, pico de gallo, and guacamole for the “make your own taco” experience. This place is an absolute beehive of activity under a blanket of hot smoke and heavenly aroma swirling from all the flaming grills. Hot as hell, but worth every minute!
Los Danzantes — I loved the atmosphere at this trendy place, as it felt like we could be in any hip little city, dining at the latest “in place.” I wasn’t as crazy about the food here, however. I know it is supposed to be “fusion,” but it tasted more like “CON-fusion” to both of us. I had the traditional Tlayuda with camarones, while Don had chicken in chipotle cream. Both were a bit bland…good, but not leaving you with any one particular flavor on the tongue….meh! But our appetizers were both good….he had a beautiful spinach salad with sesame seeds, and I had a tortilla soup. For dessert, a bread pudding with spiced Oaxacan chocolate…again, good, but no real “WOW factor.” It was our most expensive meal in Oaxaca, and probably my least favorite.
However, it was here that I fell in love…..with the “Smoky Margarita” — made from Mezcal – or as New York Times describes it, “Tequila’s smoky, spicy cousin!” Having only associated the name Mezcal with “the worm” I was skeptical, however tasting some of the finer, more distilled versions while learning to appreciate the taste of “wood fired agave,” I walked out with a bottle of Los Danzantes Blanco of my very own. 😉
La Biznaga — This was probably my favorite of all places. I wish I had more time, as I would have certainly returned here one night for dinner (we had lunch here.) I had deep fried, stuffed squash blossoms (Again with the squash blossoms, yes, but I was making up for buying a bunch at the organic market in San Miguel and letting them go to waste because I had no idea how to prepare them!!) As a main course, I enjoyed a phenomenal red snapper in chili rub, served over cactus and pineapple. It was scrumptious! Unfortunately, no room for dessert after all that, and too much touring yet to do to risk a mid-day cocktail.
La Olla — This was probably my second favorite, after La Biznaga. I had two tamales for appetizer, one black bean and the other mole — good, but I felt they could have used a little sauce on the side, especially the black bean as it was a little dry. For an entree, we split the Chicken in Mole Negro, which was just sublime, and a nice presentation with the rice molded into a little pyramid. Dessert was the vanilla flan, equally good, and another nice presentation with the vanilla creme anglais over the top.
This may have you wondering, “Did Suzanne do anything in Oaxaca except EAT???” The answer would be “Yes, I had to do something to burn off all those calories!!”
My favorite thing was the market, of course! I took a ridiculous amount of photos in there…what a stimulation of all the senses!! Chicken feet, pigs feet, pig stomach, famous Oaxaca stringy cheese, homemade sweets, hammocks and handicrafts. I could have spent hours getting lost in there!
But certainly by far the most bizarre offering in the market had to be the “Chapulines,” or fried grasshoppers in a multitude of sizes. Free samples are abundant in the market, so it is important to keep moving!
Of course Oaxaca is famous for its chocolate, usually blended with cinnamon and almonds and served hot or cold as a beverage. It also is one of the 30 base ingredients along with nuts, toasted seeds, spices and chilies used to create the complex moles for which Oaxaca is so famous.
I also loved hanging out and people-watching in the Zocalo, sitting among the festive outdoor cafes as the strolling mariachis perform and vendors pedal their wares. My favorite was the flower ladies who carried the baskets of roses on their heads.
Santo Domingo de Guzman got the majority of the photos, understandably. Even at night, it was gorgeous. The absurdly ornate interior lived up to my friend’s description of being “super-gay, gold encrusted!” I tried going to the little botanical garden in the back, but they would not let me in without a guide, and there was no tour while we were there. Next time! Like I need a reason to return!