I left Oaxaca after my 2012 visit, completely smitten. I came home and started looking at the VRBO sites to find a place for rent. After months of searching for “The RV of My Dreams” following the sale of my Atlanta home, I was just about ready to give up hope of finding one that felt right. So working remotely from Mexico to escape the winter seemed like a distant second when it came to lifestyle choices.
Looking back, I think one of the reasons I was so charmed, in addition to the perfect weather, walkable streets, beautiful architecture, and a sublime beach just six hours away, was the food. There was a plethora of chic restaurants offering regional cuisine with its fresh artesian ingredients, complex mole’s and smooth mescals, all at affordable prices. Food was beautifully presented, a feast for the eyes as well as the palate, often times sculptured into pyramids or surrounded on the plate by colorful accents like squash blossoms. Wait staff was attentive, crowds were nonexistent, and affordable “comida del dia” was on every blackboard. Aaaaah, such is life in the “off season.”
I was looking forward to repeating this experience on this visit to Oaxaca, saving back some of my vacation Peso budget for a few “big splurges” in some of the more famous restaurants that I had enjoyed during our last visit. However the change in atmosphere was palpable, particularly among the more notable restaurants. Not only were the prices incredibly higher during the holiday season (Was $120 pesos, or $10 USD, for a dessert of flan at La Olla a menu misprint???) But the wait staff seemed to turn a bit of a cold shoulder if the table ordered anything less than three courses. Of the “Top Restaurants” where we had dined in 2012, the food seemed to be smaller portions, higher prices with fewer extras for the table, such as fresh chips and salsas. In some cases, it seemed that the restaurants were trying too hard to be “chic and upscale,” like La Biznaga drowning a perfect flan in cajeta (carmelized milk) chopped pecans, and mescal, until you could no longer even tell it was flan.
I am not sure if this was a side effect of too much publicity, or too much business over the holiday season, but it was starting to leave a bad taste in our mouths…..until….Don once again dragged us off the gringo trail. 😉
We took off to explore a different side of town in the opposite direction from the pedestrian streets of the beaten tourist trail, and found the Parque El Juarez el LLano. This massive plaza offers a plethora of local restaurants, cafe’s and food carts to stretch your Pesos, as long you are willing to stretch legs and your Spanish skills as well.
The best exception to the scaled back holiday offerings was Marco Polo, a small outdoor restaurant specializing in seafood. They had fresh red snapper on the menu by the kilo, so Don asked the waiter, “What is your smallest red snapper you have?” Out comes a plate of two “beeeeeeeg fish!” for us to choose from! We decide to split the smallest one, about 4.5 pounds, asking that it be scored and fried. The crust came out crispy golden brown on the outside, and the fish flesh was sweet and succulent, the best we agreed we had ever tasted!
By far, the most memorable meals we had were around this park, blocks from the main tourist area. I had some of the best street tacos I have ever enjoyed from a vendor along the Parque El Juarez el Llano. He was mass producing these tacos a dozen at a time with lightening speed with a blurrr of hands, yet every single one was rolled to perfect proportion.
I also had the best pozole I have ever tasted from “Tacos Alvaro,” located in the same neighborhood. It was bubbling hot, with all the right condiments from oregano to chili powder to adapt it to one’s own spice tolerance.
Thanks to the discovery of the more quaint, authentic section of town leading into the Parque El Juarez el Llano, we were able to still enjoy both worlds of Oaxaca…the charming Zocalo full of families strolling and musicians strumming in the evenings, as well as the consistently flavorful and now AFFORDABLE regional cuisine that we had hoped to find on our return visit here, with the added bonus of adventure, feeling like we were “living like a local.”
And the best part? I survived two weeks in Mexico, both on and OFF Gringo Trail, without ever having to fall back on my “Mexico Survival Kit!”
(Defense against the Montezuma: Chew 1 Pepto tablet daily, chased by a cold beer. The “bismuth” kills the nasty bugs in Mexico’s water, and the beer kills the taste of the Pepto! Powdered Pedialyte packets should always be a part of any travel first aid kit. Mix with 8 oz of water for instant re-hydration. Yes, Pedialyte is for kids, but my friend the 6’4″ Marine gave me this advice.)