Eating is an integral part of the Oaxaca experience and I’d suggest that any Oaxaca-bound traveler make finding great local food a priority. While I had some knowledge of what type of cuisine I’d find there before I left, I found that I had a lot more to learn about what to try when I arrived. Luckily, I met several people along the way who steered me in the right direction towards the street food stands, the row of chocolate, and the house of mezcal. Here are some of the great dishes and beverages I discovered while I was in Oaxaca:
What it is: If you try only one local dish in Oaxaca, this should be it. But be forewarned—your taste buds will never again be the same. Mole negro is the dark, ingredient-rich, chocolate-infused sauce that is the most well known of Oaxaca’s seven moles. A good plate of chicken mole negro with rice or warm corn tortillas can create one of those wonderful meal moments that you’ll remember for years to come.
Where to try it: In a nice, sit down restaurant or at someone’s house.
Empanadas, Tlayudas & Memelas
What they are: These dishes are typical street foods in Oaxaca that are subject to the interpretation/tastes of the people preparing or ordering them. Oaxaca-style empanadas were not the pastries I expected. Most commonly, the empanadas I had there were large corn tortillas filled with spicy mole amarillo, shredded chicken, flor de calabaza, and cilantro and folded in half. This was my second favorite dish after the mole negro.
The common characteristics in all the tlayudas I tried were large corn tortillas, refried beans, quesillo Oaxaca and salsa. Some were open-faced like pizzas and had a lot of topping, while others were closed with less ingredients and a piece of steak on top.
Memelas are small corn tortillas or corn cakes with a variety of ingredient options available. With memelas, I usually kept it simple and ordered ones with only salsa and queso fresco.
Where to try them: These delectables can all be found at street food stands, made to order on a comal. Find a reputable stand (i.e., one that’s busy and seems to have customers that are regulars), grab a plastic stool and order away. You can always start small and order more as you go along.
What it is: Everyone knows chocolate, but Oaxaca does it differently (and arguably, better). In Oaxaca, you’ll most commonly find chocolate that has been mixed with cinnamon and ground almonds and formed into chunks. Other chocolate additions include honey and vanilla. The chunks can then be mixed with hot milk or water and whisked to make what is commonly referred to as “Mexican hot chocolate”. Cayenne pepper can also be added.
Where to try it: When I asked a friend I made in Mexico City for suggestions on what to do in Oaxaca, she recommended heading over to what is often referred to as “Chocolate Row”. On a street called Calle Mina, at the intersection of 20 de Noviembre, there is a high concentration of chocolate shops (Mayordomo, La Soledad and Guelaguetza are chocolatiers you’ll probably come across) where you can see parts of the chocolate-making process, sample chocolates, and buy chocolate products. Chocolate Row is just south of the 20 de Noviembre market.
What it is: These are fried grasshoppers flavored with chili and lime. I was actually tricked into trying these by a fellow hostel mate who was from Oaxaca state and wanted all of us foreigners to sample all things Oaxaca. I can’t say I’d regularly munch on chapulines, but they are not bad. For those who are typically squeamish about trying bugs but still want to give it a try, this can be a good starter point. Because they are fried and crunchy and covered with chili and lime, you’ll barely notice what is if you don’t look too closely…
Where to try it: Pick up a bag of chapulines at the Benito Juarez Market just outside of the Zocalo.
What it is: Mezcal is tequila’s earthy and smoky cousin. At first, I found the flavor of it to be a little harsh, but after sampling different types, I figured out which kinds I liked more, and found that it was one of those beverages that is well-suited for the location and just makes sense for Oaxaca. While tequila is made from the blue agave, mezcal is made from a different type of agave plant called the maguey. Mezcal is usually enjoyed on its own without a mixer and sometimes served with chili salt and orange slices.
Where to try it: Many day tours to archaeological sites and other locations include a visit to a distillery where you can see how mezcal is made and taste different types and flavors. La Casa del Mezcal, near the Zocalo, is another great place to sample various mezcals and find your favorite.