Eating in Oaxaca: A Culinary Paradise

Norma’s Note: Rico. Delicioso. Sabroso. I again invited Carol Lynne Estes to contribute a blog post about her experiences living in Oaxaca. Carol isn’t a visitor; she is a resident who knows the ins and outs of eating — from humble comedors to the finest upscale restaurants. Her impressions and recommendations are here for you to savor and enjoy.

Carol’s Restaurant Recommendations

Of the many joys of Oaxaca, food tops most lists. The variety and freshness of vegetables and fruits plus excellent quality meats make this a culinary paradise.  Combine that with the creativity and imagination of Oaxacan cooks, and there’s a treat around every corner. The documentaries running on the TV leave most viewers ready to hop on a southbound plane, and rightly so.  The joy of it all are the many “levels” of dining, from street food and carts with seats welded on the front, to roof top dining in five star, famous restaurants… and all in between.

After seven years, I am not a tourist, and so I approach my meals as though I’ll be here a while with no need for a blow out meal three times a day. My apartment has a beautiful kitchen, and so unless I’m dining with friends, I generally eat at home.  Rarely will I eat on the street carts unless it’s a fresh peeled grapefruit that I cannot resist or tamales. Any time my friend Gail arrives to meet me,  she’s munching on some treat she’s bought along the way from hamburgers to potato chips. She’s the expert on what to buy where from a cart. Many Oaxacans do not have kitchens and eat all their meals at these street stands. Food is plentiful and reasonable.

A great pleasure are the “squat and gobble” spots. Often on our way to the gym of an early morning, my husband I would stop by our favorite tamale lady off Garcia Vigil to enjoy a tamale stuffed into a fresh bolillo roll and a cup of atole. Total cost, $2 each. Occasionally as a weekend treat, we wandered to the Zocalo around 9pm when the trailers set up along the streets outside the large mercados. The Compadres are two groups of young men with stands next to one another.  They start the evening with two roasted pigs’ heads, and when the evening is over, they’re all gone, including the oink. They are poetry in motion, and we all have a great time. We love taquitos or pozole there. Delicious beyond your dreams and about $4 for both of us. At both these places, we  were the only white faces and welcomed generously.

Also in abundance are tiny restaurants for three or four-course lunches (comida corrida) served around late afternoon. A menu at the front door lists what’s on offer for the day, usually fresh produce that was available that morning at the market. Always offered will be a soup or salad, an entrée, and a dessert plus an agua fresca (fresh fruit drink). These meals range from $70-90 pesos, less than $5. Some of the best soups of my life have been these simple broths prepared well.

Coffee shops and bistros… Gourmand, Nuevo Mundo, Boulenc, Brújula, and my new favorite where my Australian nephew works, Onnno Loncheria.  There are amazing bakeries in all of these, plus wonderful Oaxacan coffee. Each is a very nice place for a simple, healthy, delicious meal.  Locally-owned Oaxacan coffee shops are on every block where most roast their own beans, often from family owned coffee plantations.

Next up are what I call the mid-level restaurants that garner $$ on Google. Most are excellent.  One of my favorites, and for many expats here, is El Quinque, now located on the west side of town and two blocks from our previous apartment on the way to Mercado Abastos.  David and I had our first date at their original restaurant near Cruz de Piedra. Many of us get the hamburger “itch” satisfied there. They also offer wonderful seafood dishes (especially on Friday), and I’ve never been disappointed in their salads. I was there last week, and the shrimp and rice was generous and delicious. El Olivo is next to my apartment on Calle Constitucion and has delicious charcuterie and extensive wine selection, and a rooftop with music that I enjoy from my courtyard. Chepiche in Barrio Xochomilco is another breakfast treat, my favorite meal out.

Close by is El Tendajon with creative, delicious huevos rancheros, but then the taquitos de cerdo are as tasty as they are beautiful. La Levadura serves “criollo” (original/indigenous) food, especially tomatoes, that amaze.  The tomato salad boasts nine varieties of tomato in every size and color. It is served on a 10” plate with a bed of beet purée. Here words fail. Yesterday one of my tiny lady friends ate TWO of these. My tamale came to me on a bed of smoldering corn husks… oh my! Almost always I have enough food to carry home for mañana.

Finally further on down the Alcala is Los Danzantes, a place I love. It is located in a classic interior courtyard between Allende and M. Bravo. Enter next to Oro de Monte Alban. The ambiance is special. One can dine under the stars next to a beautiful waterfall fountain. When I went there recently, I enjoyed a thunderstorm that accompanied a ribeye steak with a chocolate “gravy” that I remember still and cannot describe. Another place with lots of stars and wonderful, gracious service, is La Catedral, one block from the Cathedral. Breakfast there is a special treat, and the place is “old world” beautiful. Many professionals here have what seem to be business meals here. Ambience is great and the food never disappoints. 

This past year has been a challenge world over, and Oaxaca had covid pains as well.  But as this place is no stranger to tough times, they responded with grit and creativity.  Most all places hustle deliveries to whoever calls. Food arrives fresh and packaged carefully. Most restaurants are still here. In fact, La Biznaga, a favorite of many expats, moved to a larger place with a nice patio, and La Zandunga (creative Isthmus fare) next door expanded into their old space.  Both seem to be thriving. La Biznaga is famous for their margaritas, and never let anyone convince you that two is a good idea.

As I write this piece, Oaxaca still reels from the pandemic, but gradually life is returning. Restaurants have opened carefully with well-spaced seating, and the vast majority of people wear “cobrebocas.” Most stores and restaurants take temperatures and hand out squirts of sanitizer before anyone enters. Poco a poco….

Other foodie recommendations from my goddaughter Janet Chavez Santiago who is visiting me in Taos and lives in Oaxaca. She’s a local who travels the Cheap Eats circuit:

  • Dururu for Korean food. Best for carry-out since they are tiny, tiny with only two tables. Corner Manuel Doblado and Colon.
  • La Popular has great tacos de cochinita pibil and sopa de guias.
  • Gourmande for Oaxaca-brewed draft IPA. Their brewery is in San Sebastian Tutla.
  • Tacos Don Juanito. Try the tacos el vapor!
  • Arugula on Calle Miguel Hidalgo offers all organic and vegetarian choices for Comida Corrida (the 4-course, fixed priced lunch Carol mentions above).

Want your own culinary adventure? Sign up to take a tasting tour with Oaxaca Eats.

See the Facebook page, Taste of Oaxaca, for dining recommendations from locals and visitors.

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