Oaxaca was a dream I never wanted to wake up from. It’s a magical place filled with intensely flavorful food, rich saturated colors, cobblestone streets, and people who get as much joy in sharing their culture and home with others as you get from being on the receiving end of it. I had some of the best food of my life in this city, and that’s saying something considering I got a little sick from a bug I caught at the airport between flying from Merida to Oaxaca. You know how when you’re under the weather food isn’t all that appetizing and your sense of taste is dulled a bit? Well the flavors and textures of the food here pierced right through that, and even though I wasn’t feeling my best, I still formed some of my strongest food memories in this place. I have my recommendations listed out one by one below, but I wanted to talk about a few of them more in depth here first.
The highlight of this trip was definitely lunch at Casa Oaxaca, a seasonal farm-to-table restaurant owned and operated by Chef Alejandro Ruiz. Chef Ruiz was incredibly down to earth, and during our meal together he put into words and perfectly expressed all the feelings I have about food. That it brings people together, is meant to be shared, is an expression of love, and a celebration of culture. It was really heartwarming to get to talk to and share a meal with someone who was so incredibly kind and humble for being so immensely talented and highly regarded in their field. When he found out that I wasn’t feeling well, he had his staff make me some chicken soup with rice to help me feel better. It wasn’t on the menu, it was just something he wanted to do to help get me well and that small gesture spoke volumes to me. He also sources all his ingredients from local farms and some land he has himself, and you can taste the freshness in every bite of every dish. Even though the ingredients he uses are all very traditional in Oaxacan cuisine, he’s found incredibly creative ways to combine them in beautiful and refreshing new forms. Take his stone soup, which is a seafood soup that is prepared table side in a stone bowl. They place the fresh seafood and their seafood soup stock in the stone bowl, then place scalding hot stones in the bowl. These stones immediately cause the liquid to start boiling, which cooks the seafood in about one minute. Then they take the stones out, and serve you the freshest bowl of seafood soup you’ll have in your life. And more than the presentation, the flavors of each dish were just…insane. Just so, so stupidly good. I can’t really express the amount of joy this meal gave me…it was definitely in the top three meals of my life if not the very best one. For me, flying to Oaxaca would be worth it for one meal at this restaurant alone. Luckily, the city has more in store to compliment a stop at Casa Oaxaca 😀
We also had breakfast at Las Quince Lettras, which is owned and operated by Chef Celia Florian. She’s an incredibly warm and friendly person, and always has a smile on her face. I’d be that happy if I was surrounded by all that delicious food all the time, too! She learned to cook from her grandmother, and all of her dishes are a celebration of traditional Oaxacan food. Mole is a staple of Oaxaca, and while we now commonly think of mole as a chili sauce with chocolate in it, back in the pre-Spanish era of Mexico it was made by the native peoples using corn and peanuts and pumpkin seeds and was a thick yellow sauce. Chef Florian serves three different types of mole at her restaurant, so you can try the traditional yellow one, the more modern red one, and, my personal favorite, the black mole made from charred peppers that’s super smokey, sweet, a bit spicy, and very slightly bitter. She also makes the traditional hot chocolate of the area, which is cacao powder whipped with water by using a specialized whisk. If I had to describe the food here in a few words, it would be fresh and vibrant comfort food. Everything left you feeling full and cozy but not at all heavy—just re-fueled, content, and ready to explore more of the beautiful city around you.
We also ventured outside the city with our tour guide one afternoon, and stopped at weaver Nelson Peréz Mendoza’s textile workshop, where his family has been natural dying locally spun yarn and weaving them into beautiful intricate rugs and tapestries for generations. He showed us some of the local natural items they use for natural dye, like lime juice, pomegranate kernels, and cactus pests. Yep, they make an amazing red dye from these little bugs that infect cactuses and look like a powdery mildew when they’re on the cactus leaves. It was so fascinating to see the colors appear and change right in front of our eyes, and also to see them working these enormous wooden looms like it was no big deal. A really incredible place.
We also stopped at an agave farm and got to see the harvesting process for the agave plant, which is used to make mezcal. Mezcal is similar to tequila, but tequila tends to be made from a specific type of agave, whereas mezcal is made from a wide variety of agave plants depending on the taste and flavor preferences of the maker. Mezcal is also still very small batch production-wise, and the mezcal industry in Oaxaca is dominated by small family businesses who have been making mezcal for generations. Mezcal is typically smoky, and the reason for this is that the fermenting agave plant is boiled over a wood-fired oven, and the smokiness of the fire imparts a deep rich flavor into the final drink. We got to see the mezcal-making process at El Cortijo, a small-batch family-run mezcal distillery just outside of the city, with one flagship store in Oaxaca on one of the main streets. One of the sons showed us around, and afterwards, we went to his parents’ house and had a mezcal tasting, which was paired with had an incredibly delicious lunch made by his mother. It’s crazy how botanical some of the mezcals tasted, one in particular was almost gin-like, while others were incredibly deep and smokey in flavor, and it’s all because of the varying types of agave plants used in the production. We also stopped at the Tule tree (El Árbol del Tule), the largest tree in the world not in height, but in width. Standing under the giant canopy, taking it in, left all of us in an awe-struck silence for a while. There’s something very spiritual about seeing the greatness and strength of nature on that scale, I highly recommend taking a tour outside of the city just to see this insanely inspiring cypress tree.
Inside the city of Oaxaca, you also have to wander inside Santo Domingo de Guzmán. It’s the church in the main square of the city, and it has some of the most ornate and intricate interior design I’ve ever seen. Every square inch of the interior is covered with hand-carved and hand-painted small sculptures affixed to the walls and ceiling, and they’re all painted gold. It’s absolutely mesmerizing. Foodie-wise, I also recommend wandering around the Mercado 20 Noviembre, it’s a giant food market with stalls from a bunch of different vendors selling everything from fish to chocolate to tortillas to grasshoppers (that’s another traditional aspect of Oaxacan food, and I can vouch for their tastiness!). There’s also this long narrow hall will a really high ceiling filled with vendors cooking and grilling meats, so all the smoke wafts up to the windows open at the top of the ceiling and the light hits the smoke and it smells and looks freakin’ amazing.
There’s so much more to see and do there, and I have all my other recommendations in the list below. This place really is the foodie’s destination for Mexico, so if you like to eat and eat well, this should DEFINITELY be your first stop on your trip south of the border. I’m already planning my trip back for next year! 🙂
Eat + Drink
El Árbol del Tule (world’s biggest tree)
Nelson Peréz Mendoza’s textile (rugs, loom weaving, natural dying)
Santo Domingo de Guzmán (church)
Mitla (archeolocial site)
MACO (museum of contemporary art)
Nuun (art gallery)
Things to Try
traditional hot or cold chocolate
ALL the mole sauces