Oaxacan Cuisine: Top 9 Dishes to Try
When planning my visit to Oaxaca City I had one main attraction in mind- its food. Oaxaca is known for its unique cuisine, rich with traditional treats ranging from crunchy chapulines (grasshoppers) to seven different savory moles. You can find hints of Oaxacan style cuisine around Mexico, but its true roots lie in the beautifully rugged state of Oaxaca. I made it my mission to seek out the most traditional and tasty dishes. As adventurous as it sounds to find the best and most traditional food on the streets and in the market rather than in restaurants, I did not necessarily find that to be the case in Oaxaca City. Restaurants were not much more expensive than the vendors at the market, everything mentioned below cost less than 10 USD, and I found the quality and flavor to be far better. Keep reading to discover the 9 Oaxacan specialties you should not miss, as well as the best places to try them!
Nicknamed the "Oaxacan Pizza", the tlayuda is a dried tortilla covered with a variety of meat, beans and vegetables. It's a delicious combination of crunchy tortilla, flavorful tasajo (thinly cut beef), avocado and crisp vegetables that will satisfy the heartiest of appetites. Head to El Popular to try one of their meat, veggie or mole tlayudas.
2. Carnes Asadas
Extending off the main room of the Mercado 20 de Noviembre is the smoky meat hall where you can find glorious carnes asadas. Ten to fifteen meat vendors are displaying their raw cuts of pork and beef, and next to them, a wood burning grill being attended by a Oaxacan woman fanning and cooking the meats. As soon as you walk into the hall you hear waiters trying to attract customers by shouting, "señor, señor!" and "señora" or "señorita" at every passer-by. It is not a relaxing experience in the slightest, but an exciting experience to have nonetheless. Once you are finally persuaded to sit down at one of the booths, you are given the option of tasajo (thinly sliced beef), cecina (thinly sliced pork), cecina enchiladas, or chorizo. While your meat is being grilled, you have the option of purchasing tortillas and vegetables to accompany your grilled meat. I wrapped my tasajo in a warm tortilla and topped it with pico de gallo and guacamole.
Also known as corn smut, huitlacoche is a type of fungus that grows on corn. It may not sound appealing, but its texture and subtle earthy taste is similar to mushrooms, making for a delicious addition to many Mexican dishes. I enjoyed it wrapped in thinly sliced pechuga (chicken breast) along with goat cheese in a flor de calabaza (squash blossom) sauce.
4. Conos de Flor de Jamaica
This snack involves fried wheat cones stuffed with hibiscus flower and served with guacamole. The hibiscus flower is commonly used to make a refreshing infused water, but it is equally as tasty to eat. The hibiscus is slightly tart, accompanied by a smoky chili flavor and guacamole. You can find it at La Biznaga.
5. Hierba Santa
Hierba santa is a large pungent tasting leaf boasting a flavor of several spices, most prominently anise or licorice, it is cooked and then often stuffed with other Oaxacan delicacies such as Oaxacan cheese, chile, or chapulines. You can find it at the market as well as at Los Danzantes, one of the finest restaurants in Oaxaca (pictured above).
Mole may well be Oaxaca's most famous dish, and rightfully so. It has one of the most dynamic flavor profiles of anything I've ever tasted. There are about seven types of moles, all varying in taste and color.
Mole negro has to be one of the most delicious sauces I've ever tasted. It's sweet, savory, and slightly bitter all at the same time. However, it can also be one of the most unpleasant and bitter things you ever taste if you get it from the wrong place. After a less than successful visit to the market I found the most divine mole negro at La Olla. It was a straightforward dish of chicken breast delicately resting in a shallow bowl of inky black mole, simple yet bursting with flavor, leaving you completely content. Be sure to order their agua de jamaica. It was the best I've had in Mexico.
Mole rojo has a similar base as mole negro, however it has less of the chocolate flavor and more of the spicy taste, imagine a variety of dried chiles like ancho chiles. It has a less-rich flavor and more of a sweet, tangy, and spicy dynamic flavor. I had mole rojo with the most tender and juicy pulled chicken from Los Danzantes. If you are to dine at one restaurant it has to be this one!
Now I'm not trying to say that grasshoppers are the most delicious food you can get in Oaxaca, but they are one of the most common and traditional so I couldn't leave them out. You'll find them all over, and you can eat them in a variety of ways. They are often served alongside mezcal as a bar snack, but I enjoyed them most with a quesadilla rather than straight down the hatch. They don't taste like anything too crazy, just a little crunchy and salty. Definitely worth a try while in Mexico! You'll be sure to impress your friends back home.
Even before arriving in Oaxaca, the homeland of mezcal, you'll notice it's a pretty big deal throughout Mexico. There are plenty of trendy mezcaleritas in Mexico City, serving just mezcal and mezcal cocktails. It has a distinct smoky aroma, and an alcohol content that can reach up to 55%. Like tequila, mezcal is made from agave, but from a different variety of agave. Its production techniques are also different from the ones used to make tequila, resulting in two very unique flavors. You can find it everywhere in Oaxaca City.
9. Coffee & Chocolate
Oaxaca is known both for its coffee and its hot chocolate, so I thought what better way to try both than to order a mocha? It did not disappoint. It was a glorious marriage of two of the most decadent flavors. You can smell the richness of the chocolate as soon as the mug is placed in front of you. I'd recommend Café Brújula for their excellent coffee and pretty latte art.