Tasting our way through Southern Mexico's cultural and culinary capital
WORLD EATS The first thing you probably need to know about the magical Southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is that sensory overload is always on the menu.
Ancient sci-fi Zapotecan ruins, Technicolor one-story colonial buildings, and an endless stream of live music, whirling dance, outspoken political protest, and eye-popping art justify the eponymous capital city's reputation as one of the most vibrant crucibles of human culture on the planet. (Seriously, there is live music and dancing, from traditional to punk, outdoors in multiple venues until 3am most nights. San Francisco, where you at?)
The soaring mountains of the countryside host innumerable villages, each with their own dazzling take on local customs and artistic expression. The beaches, like renowned global hippie-nudist beauty Zipolite, expand expectations by drawing a saucy mix of laidback locals, hard-partying city folk, and misfit spiritual wanderers from around the world who greet the golden waves with fire-twirling at sunset and impossible-looking naked yoga at dawn. And for any travelers worried that this land of UNESCO World Heritage Sites has been completely sanitized for first-world tourists, there's plenty of everyday chaotic Mexican street life and colorful off-the-map adventures in which to satisfactorily immerse oneself.
But all that's not even talking about the food. Any foodie explorer worth her rock salt knows that Oaxaca is the "land of the seven moles" — rich, fragrant sauces, traditionally poured over roasted turkey, made from a range of pulverized ingredients including chili peppers, chocolate, nuts, cloves, dried fruit, and tomatillos. (A great SF introduction to mole can still sometimes be found at the Mission's La Oaxaqueña, which has unfortunately been seesawing lately between being one of the city's best restaurants and a bacon-wrapped hot dog stand on random nights.)
But in an area where dozens of indigenous languages are still spoken and villages are separated by vertiginous, day-long hikes through spruce cloud forests dripping with blooming epiphytes and eerie Spanish moss — by all means take a couple days out of your stay for a eco hike with Expediciones Sierra Norte to blow your nature-loving mind — innovation and improvisation is a way of life. Hunky Beau and I hopped down there for a far-too-affordable March getaway, and here's what we dug our forks into.
ON THE STREETS
Mole gets all the press, but the backbone of Oaxacan street cuisine is the piping hot tlayuda, a very large grilled tortilla loaded with with bean sauce, guacamole, fresh and stringy Oaxacan cheese, and a hunk of grilled meat or scoop of zesty tinga de pollo stew that's either served open-faced like a pizza or folded over like a crepe. The best ones we found in the city were at a pair of carts on Calle las Casas, conveniently located just down the street from the historic La Casa del Mezcal, opened in 1935. Ensconced in the Casa's low light, you can slow-sip several kinds of maguey-derived liquor among baroquely carved wood fixtures, kitschy paintings of Zapotec warrior gods, and a motley assortment of fascinating locals. The mezcal flows until 3am, and the roughly $2.50 tlayudas even later, so you're set for a good night out.
Oaxaca's favorite fast food: the tlayuda. Photo by David Schnur