The crowded food stalls in 20 de November Market in Oaxaca.
The steam coming from the grills is the first thing you notice, even before the smells reach you. In the front of Oaxaca’s 20 de Noviembre Market, right where it connects with the Benito Juarez Market, there are food stalls everywhere. For the shoppers. For the vendors. For the tourists, if they get the urge. Most of the stalls are sit down counter restaurants. But in a small section on the side are a row of grills and stands with beef and chorizo laid out on slanted tables, with thin loops of tripe hanging just above. You tell them what kind of meat you want, and the butcher/grillmaster cuts it, cooks it, and brings it to your table in a basket with tortillas. Meanwhile, other vendors make their way around with nopales (diced stewed cactus), green onion, red and green chiles and other condiments.
And this is just the market.
From around the world, people come to Oaxaca for the food. They come for the markets that draw from the incredibly rich countryside. Because of the shifts in altitude, Oaxaca has a huge number of climate regions, and a wide variety of the best of the best produce grows down here as a result. In a country renowned for its cuisine, Oaxaca stands tall. It’s the place that gave us the drink of the gods (mezcal), the food of the gods (chocolate), and the sauce of the gods (molé).
Even the pests become food here. A popular snack, sold everywhere from markets to football matches, is a bag of chapulines—grasshoppers, toasted and spiced.
Chapulines. They taste better than they have any right to.
The cuisine is a rich mix of dishes that pull from the multiple indigenous groups that live in the area, including the Zapotec and Mixtec. The cuisine the region is most known for is molé, including the so-called “Seven molés of Oaxaca”: Verde, amarillo, colorado, coloradito, negro, chichilo, and manchamanteles (which literally means “tablecloth stainer”). Each of these sauces is served over some kind of meat, be it turkey, chicken, beef or pork (though each does have a meat it is most traditionally served with). They vary in complexity, from molés that can be prepared in a couple of hours to ones that might take a week or two to complete.
One of the best known, and best appreciated, is molé negro. Made from a variety of crushed and ground spices, seeds and nuts, multiple chiles, and Mexican chocolate (which helps give the sauce its unique color), molé negro is an exceedingly complex sauce and, as a result, often saved for special occasions. The best I had in Oaxaca City were at the well known staples Los Danzantes and La Biznaga, and a less well known breakfast spot El Escapulario.
The region’s drink of choice, mezcal, is widely available in a staggering number of varieties. Sit down at some restaurants, most bars, and virtually any residence in the city of Oaxaca and someone will pour you a shot as a welcome. At many of the bars—or mezcalerias that specialize in the eponymous drink—the menu can be overwhelming. Distilleries are listed, along with the type of agave they use, and whether it is joven (young—a couple months of aging), reposado (aged from 2-9 months), añejo (aged at least a year) or some other category.
In the United States, mezcal long suffered a reputation as an inferior drink. This was due to the poor quality of what was being imported, as well as the extreme popularity of its cousin, tequila (which is actually a type of mezcal). In the last couple decades, however, the drink has experienced a rebirth outside of Mexico (it never really went out of fashion in Oaxaca). Smoky and earthy, and containing a flavor profile that varies greatly with the type of agave and the type of preparation, good mezcal is probably best compared to good scotch. Delicious, distinct, strong, and highly complex. Tequila shots are ubiquitous in the countries where it is exported. Mezcal is never, ever, EVER meant to be shot. You sip it with all the care of a hummingbird.
Sipping mescal with Roberto Bolano at Restaurante Tobizache.
But my personal favorite treat from Oaxaca is the chocolate.
This is not the type of chocolate normally associated with Switzerland or Belgium. The chocolate of Oaxaca is rarely used for pastries or confections, but more for baking, as an ingredient in sauces and, in particular, for hot chocolate.
Is there any drink more comforting than hot chocolate? In Oaxaca, it’s available in any coffee shop, and not merely as a dessert. It is perfectly acceptable to drink it for breakfast, proving that Oaxaca is a land of elevated culture and taste. On ordering you will be asked if you prefer it with milk or water. Milk is rarely drunk alone in Oaxaca, so the quality is not what you might be used to if you live in a dairy region. But it works just fine for hot chocolate. The drink will then be spiced with cinnamon and, occasionally, with chile. In the cool climate of the mountains, it’s unbelievably refreshing.
This man spends all day dealing with chocolate, which makes him smarter than you.
I haven’t mentioned the service, which from restaurants to bars to mezcalerias to coffee shops is uniformly superb. Hospitality, as demonstrated by those welcoming shots of mezcal, is of high importance here. There seems to be little secrecy about what makes the food great, which makes sense. The cuisine here is defined by quality ingredients, but also by meticulous attention to detail that consumes a great deal of time. Whatever secrets are held by those who prepare it are deeply encoded in the method of preparation. You could probably get a full list of ingredients of a family secret molé sauce and still have no idea which step to open with. The secrets are safe, and the land is abundant. These are secrets that are safe to share.
- El Escapulario is located at Calle Manuel Garcia Vigil 617. They have a Facebook page here.
- La Biznaga is right down the street is Calle Manuel Garcia Vigil 512. They have a Facebook page here.
- Los Danzantes is across from the Santo Domingo cathedral, at Macedonio Alcalá 403. Their website is here.
- Restaurante Tobizache is located at Calle 5 de Mayo 311. They have a website here.
- Café Arábico is located at Macedonio Alcalá 802.