Looking for a spectacular brunch spot in Oaxaca with gourmet taste at a moderate price? Look no further. Criollo restaurant offers it all! Note: Be sure to make a reservation! Doors open at 10 a.m.
There is a reason that this Top Chef Enrique Olvera (of Pujol fame) dining spot is packed with locals and a few foreign visitors on Sunday morning! The outdoor dining alfresco under the shade trees and palapas is a real treat. It’s casual. It’s beautiful. It’s delicious. Okay. Now I’m repeating myself.
Set in proximity to a cocina de humo — an outdoor smoke and grill kitchen — the picnic tables are adorned with huge vases of fresh flowers on a patio of crushed gravel. Waiters offer a choice of barrista made coffees or café de olla— the sweet, cinnamon and vanilla infused coffee that native Oaxacans love to dunk their breakfast bread into.
Now for the bread! The choices are conchas—bigger and more delicious than you find anywhere, sweet bread stuffed with vanilla cream, and a nutty fruit bread flavored with ashes—my particular favorite. One little bite was not enough to satisfy. I had to eat the whole thing. Estoy gordita.
Dean, Kay and I shared a plate of grilled meats. It comes with grilled veggies and pineapple, guacamole, beef, pork ribs and chorizo. It isn’t on the menu — so be sure to ask for this. We also had a fresh fruit platter. They added granola and yogurt to the meal.
As founders of Oaxaca Eats, they know the best eating and grazing joints in town. I trust their taste explicitly. We’ve known each other since North Carolina days, before they moved to Oaxaca over six years ago.
After breakfast, Kay says, wanna go to the symphony? Sure, I say. So we hop in a taxi and get to Teatro Macedonio Alcalá JIT.
Seems the symphony is auditioning for a new conductor. Today was a special treat. Maestro William Harvey was on the podium and not only dazzled us with Bach and Beethoven, showing off his own violin virtuoso, but performed his own composition paying homage to indigenous peoples and featuring a vocalist from the Spokane tribe of Washington state, of whom only 25 native speakers remain.
It was an amazing day, a cultural treat all the way around.
This amazing TINY restaurant is at the corner of Calle Reforma and Gomez Farias, across the street from Conzatti Park. It has six tables and seating for about 20 people. How do you say it? XAOK = Sha-Oh-K. The K is soft, barely the hard consonant we know in English.
Chef Uriel Garcia works the kitchen and the dining room with two staff members who assist in serving and cooking. Why do we love it? Everything is delicious and artfully presented. The food is innovative, fresh, and there are many vegetarian, gluten-free, and vegan options. There is no compromise on quality.
He came up with the name XAOK as a derivative of Oaxaca. An anagram, so to speak.
XAOK has been open for four months. While its a newbie on the restaurant scene, Uriel has deep experience in food preparation. He went to university in Oaxaca for four years to study culinary arts, then worked as a chef in Rodolfo Castellanos’ award-winning kitchen at Origen for six years before opening XAOK. No wonder each dish is special!
This is a must-visit foodie destination for residents and travelers alike. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, you will revel in the taste sensations and appreciate the value of this extraordinary food.
BTW, the sourdough bread here is as good as anything I’ve had in San Francisco, where I lived, ate, and reveled in the sourdough bread culture. It’s crustiness is sublime. Its soft center, pocked with fermented air pockets, is tangy and exactly what sourdough bread should taste and look like. It comes from Sagrado Filemon at the corner of Allende and Porfirio Diaz across the street from Gourmand Deli.
We know the Sunday market (tianguis) in Tlacolula is amazing. When you visit Oaxaca, this is a don’t miss it moment! (Order a map from us to find your way around.) And, if you want the real deal in Oaxaca food, you want to try out one of the off-the-beaten-path traditional cocina de humo comedors operated by one of Oaxaca’s traditional cooks in this market town. A cocina de humo is a complex sensory experience with humble roots in outdoor, wood-fired, comal-based cooking. You don’t have to be a foodie to appreciate what comes off a cal coated clay comal, the essential cooking platter of every traditional Mexican home. This large, round griddle platter can be as big as sixteen or eighteen inches in diameter. It sits atop a fogon made from adobe that is usually thirty-six inches high and fueled with wood. Comales are made wherever clay is found and in Oaxaca they come from San Marcos Tlapazola and in Santa Maria Atzompa.
Cocineras Tradicionales are what they are called. These are women who were born and raised in the culture of home cooking and organic corn, learning from mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. They buy or grow their own organic produce, take the corn their families cultivate to the local mill (molina), and make their own masa using a traditional metate or grinding stone. The corn here is real food, grainy, nutty, crunchy to the taste, filled with flavor and energy. Their salsas are all scratch made in the molcajete. Their menus change based on seasonal ingredients.
Their restaurants are simple outdoor kitchens or ones tucked into the corner of their small establishments that might seat ten or fifteen people comfortably. If you know anything about fine French cuisine, you know that the Great Chefs of France — Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Georges Blanc — all started in Lyon, learning from mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, too. The similarities are strong. And, it’s about time that the great traditional cooks of Oaxaca villages are coming into their own.
Here are our recommendations for delicious, real Oaxaca village food in order of our preferences:
Mo-Kalli. Cocinera Tradicional Catalina Chavez Lopez opened a small comedor three years ago in the Tres Piedras neighborhood of Tlacolula up a dirt road on the east side of MEX 190. I went there four times in the month that I discovered it. I took my Zapotec family there and they raved about the moles. The meal is about 250-300 pesos per person and includes an appetizer, entree, dessert and fruit water. Beer and mezcal are an additional cost.
What I love about Mo-Kalli is the selection of moles. Catalina has at least seven ollas (cooking pots) bubbling away on top of her traditional cooktop, filled with (usually all of) Oaxaca’s famous moles: negro, rojo, coloradito, segueza (cracked corn kernels), verde or pipian (green), amarillo (yellow), chichilo (a somewhat bitter taste, served at funerals), and manchemanteles (tablecloth stainer, sweet with raisins and nuts). There is no menu. She brings a sampler of moles to the table that you taste with a crispy tortilla piece. Then, you decide which you want. Catalina recommends which meat (chicken, beef, pork) will go best with each sauce.
I’ve had the mole negro, the segueza and the amarillo, and coloradito. All are superb. The hospitality is out of this world. All the meats are succulent and easy to chew. If you get there, please tell her I sent you!
Nana Vira. Evangelina Aquino Luis, Cocinera Tradicional, does her cooking magic about six blocks south of the Tlacolula Market and is open Tuesday through Sunday. There is an upstairs dining terrace, and a couple of tables and benches on the ground floor next to the outdoor kitchen. We ate there after spending a couple of hours meandering the Tlacolula Market. Parking can be challenging (we do have a car), so the easiest way to get there is to hail at moto-taxi (tuk-tuk) at the corner where the Banamex is located. Eva will call you a moto to get you back to Centro. I had barbecue ribs slathered in a milder mole rojo. The fare here is a bit simpler and the prices are a la carte (no comida corrida). They make and bottle their own mezcal brand, too.
Criollito. Liliana Palma Santos was born and raised in Santa Monica, California, and returned to her family’s native Tlacolula de Matamoros about ten years ago. She and her husband opened this comedor to replicate family recipes passed through generations. They are known for their rainbow (arco iris) tortillas that incorporate three or more types of native corn, including yellow, blue, and red. Only open on Saturday and Sunday, this outdoor kitchen has three tables and can seat about twelve people at a time. I made a reservation, but it wasn’t really needed on the day we went. While Criollito is not technically considered an official Cocina Tradicional, it has all the elements to be included in this category. The three of us were feeling green vegetable deprived, so in additional to ordering tlayuda and mole negro, we started off with a comal stir-fry of broccoli, squash, and nopal cactus paddles! Price was about the same as Mo-Kalli, however did not include an appetizer or dessert.
Many of us love to eat at the market on Sunday and my favorite spot is either Comedor Mary on Avenida Galeana (side street of the church) or to belly up to one of the barbacoa tables inside the market where you can get a goat taco or consume. However, I encourage you to stretch your discovery wings and go find one of these comedors. Start with Mo-Kalli!
What does it mean to be designated a Cocina Tradicional? A Cocina Tradicional, or traditional kitchen, is a Oaxaca government designation from the Secretary of Oaxaca Culture and Art [Secretaría de las Culturas y Artes de Oaxaca (Seculta)], to honor the cocineras who are keeping the ancestral food traditions alive. Most come from pueblos, the villages, located some distances from the city where regional foods and local cooking styles are ingrained in indigenous culture.
In Teotitlan del Valle, the Cocinera Tradicional is Carina Santiago who runs Tierra Antigua Restaurant. It is through her and caterer friend Kalisa Wells, that I learned about the two cocineras in Tlacolula, because they are all invited to participate in foodie events throughout Mexico and the USA to represent Oaxaca at official culinary programs.
My son Jacob (mi hijo) and my daughter-in-law Shelley (mi nuera) came to visit for a week and just returned to Albuquerque last Saturday night. We were not hard-pressed to figure out what to do during their time here. Fortunately for me, daily activities also included some resting time, which I appreciated since they arrived the day after my return from our whirlwind Chiapas Textile Study Tour (registrations open for 2024).
What did they want to do?
Soak at Hierve el Agua mineral springs
Climb the archeological site at San Pablo Villa de Mitla
Taste mezcal (of course) in Santiago Matatlan, Mezcal Capital of the World
Dine in some of Oaxaca’s finest restaurants and comedors
Visit 3M and the Mujeres del Barro Rojo in San Marcos Tlapazola
Shop for hand-woven home goods
Explore the vast Abastos Market
Meander the Teotitlan del Valle and Tlacolula markets
Jacob has been here many times before. A world traveler who has lived and taught English in Japan for a year, Shelley had never been to Oaxaca. I know this won’t be her last visit.
Soak at Hierve el Agua. The toll road beyond Mitla is open and it only takes 45-minutes to get to this spectacular ancient Zapotec ritual site from Teotitlan del Valle. (More like 1-1/2 hours from Oaxaca City.) It’s mid-March and extremely hot here now — reaching the mid- to upper-80’s Fahrenheit. Jumping into the pools is a refreshing respite. Know that these are not true hot springs. The water is mineralized but it’s still a chilly, though refreshing plunge. Lots of food and drink stalls at the entrance to satisfy hunger and thirst, including micheladas, fresh coconut water, and snacks. Note that in addition to the tollroad, you will be stopped in the village to pay a per person passage fee, and another fee to park at the site. There are colectivos to take you there from Mitla. Some take a tour to get there or hire a taxi for the day. The tours only give you about an hour there, so beware you may not be able to spend enough time if you go this route.
Climb the Archeological Site at Mitla. Second only to Monte Alban, the post-classical archeological site at Mitla combines Zapotec and Mixtec cultures as expressed through the carved fretwork on the facades of the ancient temples. This is where Zapotec royalty were buried and Mitla was designated a Pueblo Magico a few years ago to acknowledge the historical importance here.
Eat at Mo-Kalli in Tlacolula. This obscure comedor is operated by Traditional Cook Catalina Chavez Lopez who is recognized as one of the best in Oaxaca. The small restaurant has about four tables and can seat 18-20 people if filled. It rarely is. There is no menu! This is mole country and featured here are usually seven different moles including: negro, coloradito, rojo, verde, amarillo, estofado, sigueza, and sometimes more. They come as a tasting selection for you to decide which you want to order. Depending on this, you will get the mole accompanied by either beef, pork or chicken and plenty of hot-off-the-comal tortillas. Order a cerveza or a fruit water to wash it down. This is the REAL Oaxaca. Tell her I referred you.
Taste Mezcal at Don Secundino 1914 in Santiago Matatlan. Another off-the-beaten path palenque where 30-something mezcalero Jorge Alberto Santos Hernandez makes amazing wild agave mezcal that rivals the best in Oaxaca, including my favorite, tepeztate. The palenque is named in honor of Jorge’s grandfather and his birth year. The family has been making mezcal for generations. This palenque is not easy to find. There is no signage, anywhere. It is hidden back in the campo off a dirt road leading from the highway. Google maps can help you get there — sort of! Best to call for an appointment and directions. Jorge speaks a bit of English. 52-951-185-4350. Tell him I referred you.
Visit 3M and Mujeres del Barro Rojo. 3M is none other than Macrina Mateo Martinez and the Red Clay Women are the cooperative she founded with family members years ago in San Marcos Tlapazola. Macrina may be the most famous of the women potters in the village of San Marcos Tlapazola where they trek into the foothills to dig the clay they work into beautiful pottery — bowls, plates, salseros, mezcal cups, comales and cooking vessels.
They ship worldwide and Macrina shows her work in New York’s Museum of Modern Art gift shop. Oh, and they have been to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, too. Why do we love Macrina? She is the story of independent, courageous indigenous women who have chosen not to marry in favor of career and an exit strategy from machismo culture.
Shop for Hand-woven Home Goodswith a stop to visit Arturo Hernandez in Mitla. Arturo’s workshop features cotton and wool textiles often colored with natural dyes. He specializes in home goods — tablecloths, napkins, dishtowels — but also weaves glorious rebozos, shawls, scarves, ponchos and quechquemitls. We know many designers who work with Arturo to make private label cloth sold around the world. Call ahead to make sure they are there! 52-951-189-9147
A forage deep into Abastos Market. This is the biggest wholesale and retail market in Oaxaca state. Some say it rivals any Mexico City market, too. Going there is not for the faint of heart. You can get lost. It’s like going through the souk in Marrakesh. Watch your pockets and purses. There are thieves who prey on visitors. However, with caution, you can meander and enjoy EVERYTHING that Oaxaca has to offer — from food to handcrafts to the outdoor grill kitchen where you can eat a fresh-off-the-comal tlayuda. This is where vendors come to shop and resell. Shop like you are a local by going here! Jacob and Shelley found the barbecue grill kitchen where they had goat tacos. You can get this at the Sunday Tlacolula market, too.
Meander Teotitlan del Valle to shop for rugs, get there in time for the daily 8:30-10:30 am. market, see the archeological site (behind the church), and get a great grilled taco de cecina (pork) at Restaurant Tierra Antigua. Teotitlan del Valle is where I live and you can find excellent lodging here for a fraction of the cost of comparable locations in the city. It’s also centrally located to all the sites I’ve noted above. Oaxaca culture is found in her villages, where indigenous language is still spoken and many still wear traditional daily dress.
It may have started 10 years ago when the New York Times travel section started featuring destinations you could dip into for a long weekend. Oaxaca was one of them. Arrive mid-afternoon Friday, bar hop Friday night, dip your toes into archeology with a quick trip to Monte Alban, try street tacos for lunch and fine dining for dinner, do a bit of market shopping, travel out to the Sunday Tlacolula market followed by a fast in-and-out weaving demonstration along the Teotitlan highway and get out of town by 4 p.m. Sunday. If you have 12 hours more, have another great dinner at El Catedral, Origen, Casa Oaxaca, or Los Danzantes. 36 Hours in Oaxaca. Isn’t that enough?
My Austin, TX cousin Norm sent me a text last week asking if I’d seen Somebody Feed Phil, Episode 1, Season 5, Oaxaca. (Netflix link: https://www.netflix.com/watch/81486397?trackId=253448517)
Norm wanted to know if I’d been to any of the places featured in the 55-minute segment. Curious, I logged on to discover, Yes, I know Casa Oaxaca, Origen, their famous chefs, the Abastos Market, the street taco corner, how to taste and understand mezcal, and the tapestry weaving cooperative featured. I’ve even written about eating chicatanas, gusanos, chicharrones and chapulines for Mexico Today. I know some of the fixers (the people who set up the visits). I don’t know everything. I defer to the experts for that. I also try to research for accurate reporting. The Oaxaca episode of Somebody Feed Phil had information errors and understandably, offered a sensational, brief overview for the foodies and fun-lovers among us. It could have done more. If nothing else grabs your attention, it’s going to be eating insects.
So, watching the visually stunning episode solidified my long-time desire to sit down to write about a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while: When you invite people to discover a place, it takes more than dipping your toe in the water. We must go beyond many of the more famous places featured. You need time to get out into the villages, talk to people, understand the history and the culture, ask questions. You need to discover how people survived over the centuries, sustained themselves, cultivated corn that was first hybridized 10 miles from where I live in the Tlacolula Valley 10,000 years ago. You need to know how the crafts developed out of necessity to clothe themselves and prepare food. You need to understand the political complexities of syncretism — the mix of indigenous religious spirituality and Spanish Catholicism. You need to do more than eat worms, ants and grasshoppers, make yourself up in costume mimicking the film Coco on Day of the Dead. You need to do more than sample mezcal — you need to know why it was used in ceremonial rituals.
Oaxaca is known for her sensational food and beverage. To be a responsible tourist, you need to take a deeper dive into over 8,000 years of Zapotec, Mixtec, Mixe, Ikoots, Amusgos, Chinantla, and the nine other indigenous language groups that comprise Oaxaca today. You may want to read Origin: The Genetic History of the Americas, as I am.
Yes, Oaxaca needs tourism. Our economy here depends on it. There is no other industry and it is how the formal and informal (cash) economy functions. Oaxaca lures people into the idea of coming to sample all that is offered because of its diversity in people and plant life. Of course, the lure is magical — the color, the light, the indigenous dress and the amazing food and beverage. What’s not to love? A five-day dip into the culture is an introduction where we can observe, ask questions, be respectful and discover more. Ultimately, we want you to return again and again. We also want you to learn rather than to judge or impose your own standards on a society that has thrived much longer than those of us whose origins are from Western cultures. Community runs deep here. Individualism not so much.
So when you come for Guelaguetza or Dia de los Muertos or Semana Santa or Navidad, please come with an open heart and mind. Don’t paint your face for the street party and think that you are participating like a local. Locals don’t do that. It is a Hollywood interpretation. Find the makers who are extraordinary but who have not yet achieved the fame bestowed on them by Anthony Bourdain or Phil Rosenthal or Conde Nast Traveler.
Go deeper. Take your time. Discover. There is still much to be discovered.
Tempted to visit? Go deep with us and participate in our one-day to week-long immersion visits that introduce you to the art and artisans of Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico. We still have some spaces open for our Summer Textile Mountain Tour, Day of the Dead Cultural Tour in 2022 and in Chiapas and Michoacan for 2023. See the right column of this site and click on the program that interests you.
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Eric Chavez Santiago is Zapotec, born and raised in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.
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What is a Study Tour: Our programs are learning experiences, and as such we talk with makers about how and why they create, what is meaningful to them, the ancient history of patterning and design, use of color, tradition and innovation, values and cultural continuity, and the social context within which they work. First and foremost, we are educators. Norma worked in top US universities for over 35 years and Eric founded the education department at Oaxaca’s textile museum. We create connection.
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Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle