Walkabout Oaxaca

Like the whole world these days, Mexico is changing rapidly. I notice more and more modern touches year after year. There are improvements in technology and infrastructure. Travel is getting easier, as I can now go online and book my bus ticket, make my seat selection, and pay via PayPal for my electronic ticket to be presented on my iphone. This is a huge new convenience as before, I had to wait to purchase at the bus station. And the first class buses all have charging ports beneath the seats now.

But what intrigues me the most are the changes driven by trends. I notice this in foods more than anything.

Bus station charging station. Many buses also have free wifi.

Sometimes while strolling the streets of these old colonial towns, I have flashbacks that make me think of Europe.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption near Oaxaca’s Zocalo, or main square. Thankfully, storm clouds moved on.

One of my favorite churches in Mexico, Oaxaca’s baroque Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán.

Its interior includes use of more than 60,000 sheets of 23.5-karat gold leaf.

I am continually impressed by the ingenuity of the Mexican people. They are a hard working, enterprising lot, particularly with a keen eye for tourism. Whether it be waterproof phone pouches for sale outside the cenotes, parasailing rides over the Pacific, or the hip coffee shop offering frothy cappuccinos to a Bob Dylan soundtrack from where this post is being written, when the Mexicans figure out what sells, they are all over it. I am certain if they wanted a wall built, not only would it be done in short order, but it would be painted with artistic murals end to end.

Another interesting shift in Mexico…from street dogs to pets. This unique design has two tubes on either side of the lamp post with kibble on one side and water in the other. (Heads up, street dogs!)

Mango is everywhere at this time of year. This young vendor carves it into an edible flower.

Something else I had not noticed before…big slices of jicama on a lollypop stick (back row) to be dipped in chile and lime.

I never thought I would say these words about Mexico’s response to trends, but grab your carnivore card….”The Vegans are Coming!” As restaurants evolve to meet the specialized needs of travelers, I notice more and more buzz words on the menus.

There was a time when I felt sorry for any vegetarian who dared venture into the land of carne and queso, thinking if you were to eliminate those two items from the offerings, the vegan would be left with nothing on the plate but an ear of corn and half an avocado. For even the staple of the vegan diet, beans, is seasoned with a quarter kilo of lard here. But in true Mexican fashion to meet the demands of the tourist trade, menus appear to be changing faster than the edges can fray.

This young man played this accordian like a maestro. I don’t typically give money to “street kids” because I think it encourages them to skip school. But this young man had on a school uniform and it was after school hours, so I rewarded his talents!

The vegetarian/vegan boom really hit home recently when I went back to visit my favorite restaurant in San Miguel, Don Taco Tequila. I had been saving it back for a night when I was especially hungry (and also thirsty as they have great ginger margaritas.) They do an unusual taco in that they grill the cheese until it is crispy, then fold it up inside the tortilla. The crunchy grilled cheese becomes like an inner layer of goodness wrapped around seared meat. Fabulous! Well, I had my taste buds all set. As I sat down to order, I scanned the menu to quickly locate my favorites. The names were all the same, but the ingredients had changed. My first clue was “cashew cheese.” Next was “walnut cheese.” What the heck is with these nut cheeses? I scroll a little further down to see the words “grilled soy”…..further still, “jackfruit.” I asked the waiter “Donde esta la carne????” Nada mas? Que lastima!” (What a pity!)

For I am a “cattleman’s daughter.” Altruistically, I would like to embrace the vegetarian philosophy. But physically and emotionally, I have yet to break free of the meat habit. I’ve watched all the movies that are supposed to turn one off animal products forever. I try to do the right thing by the Animal Kingdom. I do worry about the sustainability of the food chain in a growing population. But one whiff of searing meat, and I forget all about where that sizzling sirloin originated.

One of Oaxaca’s many markets, the Mercado La Merced is smaller and quieter than the main markets, but less character.

It’s got some nice, clean “fondas,” or small restaurants similar to a food court.

Trip Advisor’s number one restaurant in Oaxaca, a town known for setting the culinary trend, is now a bread place. They serve sandwiches and pizza made with their “masa madre,” or sourdough bread. Over half their menu is vegetarian. They advertise healthy offerings using “fermentation and probiotics.” These are not words I am accustomed to seeing in Mexico.

Boulenc, trending number one on Trip Advisor. I got a sandwich to go (turkey ham and queso) for dinner on my overnight bus ride, and it was best sandwich I have had in months!

The big round oven on the back left is used for pizza and sourdough.

I took a peek into one of Oaxaca’s “farm to table” restaurants, “Origen.”

Always a country that has been bold and unapologetic about its meat consumption, the meat substitutes are making their way to the menu as quickly as the meat dishes are giving way. Pozole with mushrooms. Mole Portobella. And the culinary elevation of the ubiquitous chapuline, or roasted whole-bodied grasshoppers. I even saw “ant eggs” on one menu. eeeuuww!

A wide variety of chapulines (roasted grasshoppers) outside Oaxaca’s Mercado Benito Juarez.

My Pozole with puerco (hominy stew with pork) was divine.

But all is not lost, fellow carnivores. If you are looking for one hard core seared meat extravaganza typical of “old Mexico,” look no further than the Carne Asada halls of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre in Oaxaca. You will smell it long before you see it, as the heavy smoke emulsified with fat globules wafts through the air. Hawkers vie for your business, promising the freshest slivers of tasajo, (beef shaved paper thin,) chorizo, (sausage) or cecina (partially dried beef.) Flames soar high into the air as the slices of flank steak sizzle once they hit the grill. Choose your accompaniments while your carne is cooking; grilled onions and peppers, guacamole, pico de gallo, radishes, cucumbers, all offered up al la carte at around fifty cents a serving.

The day I see tofu among these offerings, that’s when I’ll know the trend has become a tipping point.

Pick out your preferred cuts…

They will grill them while you wait.

Then make your own carne asado tacos…tofu not included. Yet.

16 thoughts on “Walkabout Oaxaca

  1. See, its this kind of incendiary thought ,and people who propose it, a wall would prevent from getting into Texas! And just to be clear the wall should be between Texas and California to stop the spread of vegetarianism ( and even worse- veganism) Refried beans with no lard, posole with no pork, menudo with no tripe, machacado with no beef! What are we coming too? A world with restaurants like the one near me that puts potato salad in their gumbo!
    Chapulines are great but as a condiment on a nice carnitas taco!
    Great post, made me wish I was back anywhere in Mexico, eating tacos grilled on the top half of a 55 gallon barrel, wondering just which one of the sauces arrayed in bowls would be best! And wouldn’t completely destroy my mouth , tongue, and throat!

  2. So… How were the chapulines? Don’t tell me you didn’t try them.
    Lovely post and it sounds like you are enjoying Mexico more each year. We had 8 inches of snow yesterday so soak up some of that warm sunshine for us!

    • Hi, Ed. I have tasted them before, and they would be a tasty beer snack if I didn’t know what I was eating. Too many years growing up on a farm, watching them hop across the dry, scorched earth of central Texas.

  3. I am encouraged to see the vegan and vegetarian options. Makes a visit to Mexico much more appealing to those of us who don’t eat meat or cheese. I think even you would have really liked the taco filling I made last night with walnuts, mushrooms and riced cauliflower 🙂

  4. All this meat and vegetable talk has me craving steak or BBQ. I don’t think I could ever salivate over a fresh veggie like I do for a perfectly grilled steak but good for Mexico for catering to the needs of all their visitors!

  5. Indeed, it is surprising how many restaurants in San Miguel have vegan and vegetarian items on their menu. But, I’m with you – give me the tried and true.

    I am happy to see Mexico cater to tourism. We “locals” however, eat at the less expensive, but equally good restaurants. One of which you visited while here – Don Felix.

  6. What a beautiful (and clean) city! Interesting post – I’m all over vegetables and stuff, but I’m kinda like you – a waft of beef gets me every time. I also noted how thin the people were in the restaurant – quite different from my local tex-mex joint. Hmmm, maybe I should give those vegetables another chance……..at least more often than I do now!

  7. Are chapulines (roasted grasshoppers) vegan?
    Probably won’t try them in any case. I laughed at Jim’s posting for a worthwhile wall.

  8. Fellow carnivore checking in: “a hard core seared meat extravaganza” in Oaxaca in November? Ohhhhh…if only I were a more seasoned traveler who possessed the ability to navigate the goings and comings alone! Carne Asada, indeed! “I want to be there! I want to go!”, she cries from her cozy lazygirl bedroom chair, arse firmly planted (stuck?) in deep complacency.

    At the end, this post had me lingering, in the air, like Quick Draw McGraw’s faithful floating hound, drunk in heady delight with the sight and smell imaginings of Mexico!

    You do this oh! so well, Suzanne! 🙂

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