Tasting our way through Southern Mexico's cultural and culinary capital
Or snatch a tlayuda for a perfect cheap dinner, paired with a steamy, meaty bowl of pozole from the carts down the block. (Fun fact: pozole is descended from the stew Zapotecs used to make of leftover human sacrifice parts. Now it's mostly pork and corn.) Cheap breakfastwise, we were blown away by the scrumptious, hefty $2 morning chorizo- and omelet-filled tacquitos toasted on hot rocks by charming women on Calle García Vigil, near the Mercado 20 de Noviembre main market. Self-serve bakery Pan Bamby across from the huge, ever-bustling central zócalo serves a dizzying array of perfectly flaky empanadas for about 30 cents each, including several rare veggie options like creamed spinach and spiced vegetables. And, as always, the market is the best place to acquaint yourself cheaply with the local cuisine: witness the overflowing seafood cocktails at Mariscos Panchos and delectably overloaded roasted pork soft tacos, five for $3, at Carnitas Patlan.
Fascinating traditional drinks served at outdoor cart Nieves Cholito el Tule in the Plazuela de Carmen Alta include tejate (a crazy-sweet maize and cacao Zapotecan drink with a plasticky foam on top), chilacayote (made from a succulent squash with edible seeds as chewy treats), and syrupy tuna, a.k.a. cactus fruit.
And the mole? I want you to look up fabulously dramatic, yodeling folk singer Geo Meneses right now and imagine her backed by a full orchestra (six tubas!) in the open air of Oaxaca suburb Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, which hosts enchanting, slightly witchy open-air Tuesday evening "Martes de Brujas" concerts, featuring an array of miracle street tamales from local venodors: chicken marinated in chocolaty mole negro, pork in tangy red mole coloradito or zippy mole verde, wrapped in eucalyptus-like yerba santa leaf. Kind of unbelievable.
IN THE SEATS
Mole, of course, also served as an entry into the more experimental cuisine of this tastebud paradise. When you can get a three-course meal for two with a bottle of surprisingly satisfying Mexican wine (Casa Madero of Parras de la Fuente is producing a quality chenin blanc, and Baja's Cavas Valmar a perky grenache) for around $50, we went and splurged a little.
Intimate and colorful La Olla, near the imposing Santa Domingo church, is where you go for regional authenticity with flair. Wide, thin slices of beef tongue soaked in a mole verde of almonds, raisins, tomatillo, and cilantro; mole negro de fandango, a fantasy-fulfilling 25-ingredient mole negro over roasted chicken; and mole amarillo con pitiona, lively and yellow with corn masa, three kinds of peppers, and lemon verbena vanished from our table in a mad scramble of sauce-sopping tortillas.
La Biznaga is the hip joint, a "very slow regional food" operation named for a portly flowering cactus, its large courtyard decked out in vibrant Cuban hues, with towering chalkboards announcing the fascinating menu and a globe-hopping clientele lapping up pulque cocktails. (Mixing with milky, beer-like pulque, derived from the maguey plant, is super-trendy in Mexico right now, and should hit here any minute.) An appetizer of yerba santa-wrapped bricks of Oaxacan cheese drizzled with citrus liqueur-infused crema came off a lot lighter than it sounds. "El Necio," a large hunk of flank steak stewed in a mole-like sauce of smoked chili, plums, and mezcal submerged us in flavor world several fathoms deep, while a mushroom and goat cheese-spiked coloradito lifted a fleshy fish fillet to the top of our list.
Jicama taquitos with grasshoppers, corn smut, and quesillo at Casa Oaxaca. Photo by David Schnur