Why You Should Go To Oaxaca: Mexico’s Food Mecca

The origin of our Oaxaca journey is a peculiar one. We wanted to go somewhere over New Year’s but we weren’t sure where. And we had US trips on each side so we didn’t want to go too far. While watching Chef’s Table on Netflix, we saw the episode with Enrique Olvera, the chef from Pujol, and his 300-day old mole. We looked up flights to Oaxaca right away. (While Pujol is in Mexico City and we were lucky to score a table later in our travels, Oaxaca is the birthplace of mole.) It also doesn’t hurt that we are mezcal aficionados and that Mexico is one of our all-time favorite places. We geared up our taste buds and headed south!

Disclaimer: We always travel on New Year’s but it’s actually my least favorite time to travel. It is always much more expensive and crowded in most places and oftentimes things are closed. Mix that in with winter weather flight delays and you’re in for a real treat. This used to be an ideal travel time because the holiday allowed for time off work with no family obligations but now that we are location independent, it isn’t necessary. While we have had some fabulous New Year’s trips, I don’t necessarily recommend traveling at this time.

Funny Story: Our Oaxaca trip was our last hoorah before going home to the US for a couple of months. As we were catching up with our friends and family, they wanted to hear all about our travels from the last year. Everyone’s favorite question to ask is, “Where has the best food?” To their dissatisfaction, we answered Mexico every.single.time. I think they were looking for a little more as most of them have been to Cancun or Cabo for a cruise or resort vacation and didn’t remember the food as remarkable. But I’m talking about the real deal Mexican cuisine, lobster from Baja, tacos from Mexico City, ceviche from the Yucatan Peninsula, and mole from Oaxaca. Once we shared our culinary journey, they were quickly converted.

Where to Eat in Oaxaca

Okay, first things first. We went to Oaxaca strictly for food tourism. Oaxaca is known for amazing mole, mezcal, chocolate, and cheese!

Casa Oaxaca

This is my top 3 dinners of my life. The food was so well prepared and delicious not to mention the excellent service, cocktails, and ambiance! We had a ceviche stuffed poblano, an insect tostada, grilled octopus, lamb chops, and mamey desert. All this was perfectly paired with mezcal on the rocks for Grant and a mezcal martini for me! They make tableside salsa and the menu is just enough out of your comfort zone to make it a culinary adventure!

Be sure to make a reservation and ask to sit on the rooftop. It has beautiful views of the Santo Domingo cathedral. Casa Oaxaca was half the price and 10 times better than the tasting menu dinner we had days before in Mexico City. Even if you are on a budget go and try something, split something, I don’t care… just go!

Mercado de Noviembre

This market has tons of little restaurants inside and they are all awesome. We went here twice for breakfast! Be sure to get fresh juice and some chocolate con agua. Mercado Benito Juarez is another fun market to visit.

Street Food

We had tlayudas on New Year’s Eve from a no-name street cart which were awesome and the tacos from El Lechoncito de Oro are a must-try! (I even ate them after Casa Oaxaca while Grant judged me!) Heads up: They are open late and have weird hours.

Origen

We had a reservation at Origen but ended up cancelling because we were so full after our cooking class. It is very well reviewed and is likely a good pick for a nice dinner.

What to Eat in Oaxaca

Insects: It’s all about the grubs. Insects are delicacies here so get over it and try some chapulines (grasshoppers). They are actually quite tasty and while I don’t prefer them alone, they are great as a topping. We had them in salsa, on top of tostadas, and crushed up on the rim of a cocktail! And they aren’t just for street food. They were even on the menu at fancy Casa Oaxaca.

Cheese: Even gringos know Oaxacan cheese is a thing (well in Oaxaca it is simply “queso”). It’s that white Mexican cheese at the grocery store, you know the one. Well, it is awesome. There are two variations, one crumbly and one stringy, and we can’t get enough. Thank goodness, it’s served on nearly everything.

Mole: Ah, this is what you came for. To be honest, we don’t eat a lot of mole at home, but when in Rome. We had it at our nice dinner at Casa Oaxaca and we cooked it in our cooking class. Both were fabulous. With locally sourced ingredients and the magic touch of an abuela, it is one of a kind in Oaxaca.

Enfrijoladas: Enfrijoladas are just what they sound like… frijoles (beans). They remind me of an enchilada and they are oh so good. Try them in red and green sauce too!

Tlayudas: These are like Oaxacan pizza, except they don’t taste like pizza. They’re similar to a tostada but the tortilla is much chewier, almost too tough for me! Download out Oaxaca Food Bucket List here.

Where to Drink in Oaxaca

If you don’t feel like going to a palenque to taste some mezcal, there are lots of options you can walk to in town. Be sure to make a reservation at Mezcaloteca. We went here on New Year’s Eve and it has such a good vibe. The unassuming front door opens up to an intimate and cozy bar where knowledgeable bartenders will guide you through all of the best mezcals. In Situ has a similar vibe with a great selection and cozy atmosphere. We liked Sabana Sabe for a pre-dinner drink, although their restaurant looked great too.

And if you’re over mezcal you can head to Mezcalerita for more of a traditional bar with a wide craft beer selection. Cuish, Archivo Maguey, and El Cortijo were also on our list but they were closed for the holiday. For a morning-after pick-me-up head to Cafebre or Brujula for delicious coffee.

What to Drink in Oaxaca

Mezcal: I adore a mezcal craft cocktail, but in Oaxaca it is served is straight up and room temperature. Try it in all forms and fashions and sip it slow because its quality is far superior to the exported stuff you can by in the states.

Chocolate: Yep, Oaxaca has chocolate you can drink! Of course, they do. It’s not hot chocolate like you’re thinking. While it is similar in that it is served warm, the taste is much more complex. You can order it con leche or con agua. We preferred the water because the chocolate is so creamy and delicious in its own right you don’t even need the milk. It is served with bread for dipping and it is a great addition to a Oaxacan breakfast.

What to Do in Oaxaca

Visit the Mezcal Palenques

Our friend, Tony, had recently visited Oaxaca and he recommended booking a tour with Darinel Silva to do all of the local Oaxacan things including visiting two Palenques (Mezcal distilleries). We couldn’t think of a better way to spend New Year’s Eve day so he picked us up at our hotel and we headed out of town. We were expecting a day at the distilleries, but we got a day filled with awesome activities.

Breakfast at La Cabaña del Tio Vale

First stop: food. Are you catching on yet? We stopped at a side of the road restaurant for breakfast, La Cabaña del Tio Vale, and he ordered all of the fixings for us! We had chocolate con agua, 3 types of enfrijoladas, and quesadillas with squash blossoms. It was so delicious and very authentic.

Art Sculptures in San Martín Tilcajete

Next, we visited the art gallery of Jacobo and María Angeles in San Martín Tilcajete. They specialize in making wooden sculptures called alebrijes. If you’ve seen the movie Coco, you are going to freak out. It is Coco in real life! We hadn’t seen it but we watched it the next day after hearing about how the movie was inspired by the area and this art studio particularly. The sculptures are so impressive and I would have loved to take one with home with me, but they are quite pricey! The brief tour was informative and we learned about the entire process and even learned our Zapotec astrological spirit animals!

Cloth weavers in Santo Tomás Jalieza

Then we visited the artisans of Santo Tomás Jalieza. These sweet old ladies make beautiful handicrafts. They are great quality and inexpensive. I bought a nice purse and makeup bag!

Mezcal Tasting in Santa Catarina Minas

Finally, we headed to Santa Catarina Minas to taste some mezcal! We went to two palenques and it was so awesome. The palenques are tiny. Instead of a factory set up you would expect from a winery, this is literally in someone’s back yard. We were the only people there except for one Mexican family on vacation. We got to see where the agave, maguey, is distilled and believe me when I say it is rustic!

We then went into the “tasting room” a garage basically and sampled mezcal from wooden bowls. It is a family based operation and the two mezcal bosses we met, Felix and Conejo, taught their sons how to make mezcal and they will teach their sons. We chatted with Felix and Conejo at each of their palenques and it was very casual. We even stayed to eat lunch with Conejo’s family! Once we decided which mezcal we wanted to buy, they bottled it up on the spot and stuck a label on it. This is the real deal, folks.

We stopped once more at a pottery shop on the way back to downtown Oaxaca and then Darinel dropped us at our hotel. It was such an awesome day. There was no tour shuttle or group. It as just us, Darinel, and a peek into everyday Oaxacan life. 100% recommendable, you can contact him on Instagram here.

See El Tule

This was our New Year’s Day activity. We took a cab there and took the bus back. The El Tule tree is the widest tree in the world and is quite impressive. The little park around it is very nice and we enjoyed sitting on a sunny bench while eating paletas.

Take a Cooking Class

I like cooking almost as much as I like traveling so I knew I wanted to do one in Oaxaca of all places. It was an all-day affair. We started by visiting the markets to purchase our ingredients, then we went to the cook’s house. It was way better than cooking in a sterile kitchen. We donned aprons and got recipe printouts but it was no joke. We seriously learned some difficult dishes, including 30 ingredient mole! We ate non-stop. Before cooking, during cooking, and after cooking! Our group was a bunch of other young couples and the mezcal was flowing. It was so much fun, you can book it here.

What We Didn’t Do In Oaxaca

Leave the City

Aside from the palenque tour we spent the majority of our time in the city of Oaxaca. I would have liked to visit the ancient ruins at Monte Alban, go to the coast, or visit Hierve el Agua, a petrified waterfall, but we didn’t have enough time on our short trip. Needless to say, we’ll be back!

Where to Stay in Oaxaca

Because it was New Year’s almost everywhere was booked (another reason not to travel then) but we found Hotel Villa Alta in a great location for a very reasonable price. It was fine for our needs, we were barely there! But there are several nice bed and breakfasts in the area. We enjoyed staying downtown so we could walk everywhere.

Celebrating New Years in Oaxaca

So there are some benefits to traveling on New Years. You get to experience New Years in another country! Mexico knows how to celebrate. It was a very family friendly celebration in Oaxaca but there was still lots of music, dancing, and drinks. We stayed in the streets and watched fireworks. Be sure to purchase confetti-filled eggs to smash on people’s heads if you’re there at the holidays. So fun! Our fellow nomad friend, Keith, who we met while volunteering in Tortola, happened to be in Oaxaca at the same time so we celebrated together.

Funny Fact: We bought loads of mezcal home for ourselves and as gifts for friends. Our bag was overweight so we were moving non-liquid items to our carryon bags to make more room for the mezcal. Our carry-on bags were then quite heavy, which usually isn’t a big deal but Interjet Airline decides to weigh your carry-on bag too! Seriously?! Ours were overweight and we didn’t want to pay so we stepped aside and layered on extra clothes, hats, and jackets. We looked ridiculous and Grant even had a Bluetooth speaker in his pocket! But hey, it worked! Clearly, we’ll do anything for mezcal.

Is your mouth watering yet? We absolutely loved Oaxaca and this was such a fun vacation. We only visited the city of Oaxaca but its state of the same name has beautiful beaches we want to come back for too! Even if you’re not a foodie, plan a food-centered trip. You’ll be surprised how much fun you have!

Bellies and hearts full,
-Ray

Note: We visited Oaxaca in December 2018 / January 2019.

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