If Mexico City is the sprawling, cosmopolitan member of Mexico’s collection of diverse cities, and Cancun its sexy, sun-kissed cousin, Oaxaca is the old soul of the family. The romantic, the mystical.
The city of Oaxaca, capital of the state of the same name, is nestled near the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains, about 300 miles south of Mexico City. While the effects of poverty and blemishes of globalization can be seen throughout the outer layers of the city, at Oaxaca’s core sits a charming, brick-paved historic center, lined by centuries-old churches, towering trees and colonial buildings awash in Technicolor primaries and pastels.
Small surrounding villages populated by artisans and farmers imbued with an indigenous spirit connect the city of Oaxaca to ancient Zapotec traditions, a relationship that has created a city bursting with markets selling local crafts and textiles and a culinary scene populated with street vendors and restaurants deserving of international acclaim.
Strolling to dinner from our gorgeous hotel, the palatial Quinta Real de Oaxaca, originally built as a convent in the 16th century, we passed through the Parque Labastida (a narrow park between streets), where teenagers twirled and twisted in a group dance, children kicked a soccer ball and an artist painted his vision of the moon-splashed Templo Sangre de Cristo at the park’s west end. A young couple, silhouetted in the twilight, shared a kiss on the church’s bottom step. Oaxaca embraces you instantly.
One of the most revered restaurants in Oaxaca, Los Danzantes, sits in the back courtyard of a remodeled 16th-century colonial building located between the Templo Sangre de Cristo and the magnificent Templo de Santo Domingo.
A massive brick wall, rippled like an accordion, abuts a water fountain in the open-air dining room partially draped by V-shaped sails that allow for a view of the bruised blue of twilight. The culinary traditions of Oaxaca, a state of varied topography and abundance, have been passed down from generations, but if you aren’t lucky enough to find an abuela to cook you dinner in her home, restaurants like the widely revered Los Danzantes offer a modernized taste of tradition.
The hip yet ancient restaurant sources from the region’s bounty to create seasonal dishes with ubiquitous Oaxacan ingredients like hierba santa, an aromatic herb used in everything from tamales to moles. Here it wraps tangy goat cheese and creamy quesillo, another Oaxacan staple, that sits in a piquant, army-green pool of sauce made from tomatillos and chipotles. The meal, like so many you will encounter in Oaxaca, starts with supple stone-shaped rolls and crackling blue corn tortillas that you splash with electric green and dark pasilla salsas.
Sauteed bitter local greens were scattered in a squash blossom cream sauce that coated tensile ropes of linguine and supple octopus on an entree that highlighted early summer produce. You’ll find chapulines (grasshoppers) at stalls and on menus throughout town, and chef Hugo Arnaud Zarate of Los Danzantes fries them to a toasty finish, which made for a perfect balance with the earthy funk of huitlacoche stuffed into an ancho chili on a dish sweetened with chunky plantain puree and a viscous ring of piloncillo sauce.
The state of Oaxaca extends south to the Pacific Ocean, and the meal’s highlight was a thick piece of mahi mahi on a plate that celebrated another centerpiece of Oaxacan cuisine: peppers. The mahi mahi was crusted with dark chilhuacle chilies, seared to an ebony finish and surrounded by mole amarillo, one of the seven moles of Oaxaca, its deep, rich blend perfumed with cloves.
Most important meal of the day
Breakfast is a meal not to be skipped in Oaxaca. While we ate most of our breakfasts at our hotel, we made a reservation to start one day at the elegant yet quaint La Casona de Tita, a hotel a few blocks north of the Templo de Santo Domingo. The hotel’s half-dozen rooms ring a courtyard that hides behind a salmon-colored wall facing the street.
Amelia Lara Tamburrino, a former cultural counselor at the Mexican embassy in Rome, helms a staff that provides the kind of warm and professional hospitality you’d expect from a leader with such an impressive background.
Parakeets welcomed us from their perches as we relaxed into a meal that started simply and perfectly with doughy rolls powdered with flour and accompanied by lush butter (inscribed with the hotel’s name) and a trio of sublime homemade marmalades: guava and anise, mango and passionfruit, and grapefruit and ginger. There were also soft, homemade corn tortillas encasing creamy and gooey Oaxacan cheese that we dipped in green salsa packed with peppers, onion and garlic, because I will eat that any time of the day.
The local chickens that supply the eggs for Casona de Tita are fed a diet of organic vegetables and alfalfa, and the birds’ health and contentment was apparent in the sunset-colored yolks that centered sunny-side-up eggs separating piles of crunchy tortilla strips, one colored with bright green salsa, the other with a deeper, smoky red.
Off to market
There are several day trips and quick excursions you can take while staying in the historic center. Grab a taxi (or schedule one through your hotel) and make the 7-mile trip to Monte Alban. The pre-Columbian Zapotec capital thrived for almost 1,500 years, beginning in 500 B.C. Explore the dams, canals, pyramids, temples, ball court and tombs on the grounds and climb to the top of the platforms at both ends of the 300-meter esplanade in the center of the UNESCO World Heritage Site for stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valley.
Our two-hour visit in the late-morning ignited a hunger that we satisfied with a trip to the Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Dining stalls and vendors cram the boisterous market, but meat lovers should follow the smell of smoke to a side hallway known as both the pasillo de humo (smoke hall) and the pasillo de carnes asadas (roasted meat aisle). Both are apt descriptions.
The meat vendors each give the hard sell on their array of crimson meats that drape across their stalls and dangle overhead. We selected aged beef (tasajo) that the cooks toss on the grill. They lift the grills and scatter peppers and onions directly on the coals as older ladies with wicker fans stoke the flames. The juicy, thin-sliced beef and soft, charred corn tortillas the size of dinner plates are delivered to your table in the hallway, and you complete your tacos by selecting fresh rounds of radish and cucumber from a tray that also offers piquant green salsa and roasted tomatoes.
After tearing through lunch, reward yourself with Oaxacan chocolate from La Soledad; the tannic grip of bitter espresso from the local roasters at Café Brújula; or a tart tamarind paleta de agua from Paletería Popeye. Or, if you’re like us, hit all three.
(The Mercado 20 de Noviembre is just one of many markets in Oaxaca. Other highlights include shopping for produce and herbs — make sure to clean thoroughly with microdyn or bleached water — at the Benito Juarez Market or breakfast from La Florecita inside the Mercado de la Merced.)
With the exception of the rainy season in summer, Oaxaca generally offers clement weather perfect for rooftop drinking and dining. After exploring some of the labels from Mexico’s burgeoning wine producers and microbreweries while taking in the stunning views of Templo de Santo Domingo from Casa Oaxaca’s rooftop terrace, we made our way a few blocks over to La Olla restaurant.
Under the twinkle lights on the terrace at La Olla, I finally got my first taste of the popular Oaxacan snacks tlayuda. The crispy corn tortilla came spread with a thick layer of fatty beans and topped with cabbage, crimson tomato, avocado and steak cooked on the rooftop grill. We completed our own take on surf and turf with shrimp sauteed with chipotles and garlic, and washed it down with a nice spin on an American pale ale, the Rey Oh! Baby from Consejo Cervecero of Oaxaca.
Ending at Origen
A final fine dining experience in Oaxaca was weighted by the dichotomy of indulgence surrounded by strife and forced us to confront an unsettling and ongoing issue plaguing the impoverished state. In an attempt to reform Oaxaca’s education system, the federal government has imposed mandatory teacher testing. Members of the teachers’ union have responded with massive protests that have barricaded roads outside of town and clogged the area surrounding the city’s centerpiece zocalo with makeshift tent villages connected by a series of tarps.
The most recent round of protests extended from May into September and included an incident in June that led to the deaths of more than a half-dozen protesters at the hands of police in the town of Asuncion Nochixtlan outside of Oaxaca.
Ducking, bending and scuttling through the maze of low-slung tents, we made our way briefly into the Catedral de Oaxaca, though the postcard-ready church and its main square were almost completely obscured.
We manipulated the makeshift obstacle course of peaceful protesters, hundreds of them encamped with their families, and made it to a relatively quiet Origen. The restaurant from “Top Chef: Mexico” winner Rodolfo Castellanos seemed to be suffering from the effects of almost-unnavigable streets.
Chef Castellanos learned to cook at home as a teenager before studies at the Culinary Institute of Mexico and opportunities in San Francisco and Monte Carlo away from home. He returned home to Oaxaca in 2009, and in 2011 opened Origen, where he synthesizes the traditions he learned from his mother with the technique and eye for detail developed abroad.
The skin on the suckling pig was executed to a glistening, candied crunch, the accompanying mole made with grassy guaje seeds like nothing I’d encountered in the States; and the coconut flan studded with pineapples could be right at home on any fine dining menu. But as the black of night enshrouded this fairy-tale town I had come to feel at home in over several days, and the slap and snap of tarps echoed in the street, I realized I’d never felt like more of a tourist.
The commerce, trade and craftsmanship of many Mexican towns often centers on one tradition. In the tiny town of Teotitlán del Valle (about 20 miles southwest of Oaxaca), the skill of hand-weaving rugs has been passed down for centuries. The artisans of the village weave the rugs using local wool and natural dyes and many of the rugs feature traditional Zapotec designs. Take a cab from Oaxaca to the hillside village and make your way down the main road, where many shops and studios are connected to the family houses. After shopping (at prices much lower than you will find in town), pass by the eerily quiet Preciosa Sangre de Cristo church, and find the courtyard restaurant Tlamanalli for Zapotecan cuisine and Oaxacan moles.
On the way to or from Teotitlán del Valle, stop in the town of Mitla to marvel at the El Árbol del Tule. Located on the church grounds of Santa María del Tule, the Montezuma cypress has a circumference of almost 150 feet, making it the stoutest in the world. Pop across the street to El Milenario for pliant quesadillas with quesillo, epazote and squash blossoms and a glass of fresh juice (get the mango, strawberry, coconut, honey and orange).
If you’re unable to get out of town to shop in the villages, there is a large, two-story shop in the center of Oaxaca called Huizache. The store is a co-operative that carries artisan goods such as black pottery, alebrijes (wooden carvings) and textiles from the region.
What about all of this mezcal I’ve heard about? Yes, Oaxaca is swimming in the smoky cousin of tequila. You can find artisanal selections at restaurants all over town and there are production facilities scattered throughout the countryside. The best way to get a taste of all the region has to offer is to schedule a visit to a mezcaleria in town. The friendly and knowledgeable staff at Mezcaloteca, a warm, wooden tasting room located in the heart of town, will educate you on the diversity of plants used to make mezcal, the stories of the people who make it and the effect the cultivation and production process has on flavors and aromas. The hourlong education includes a tasting of three of the artisan mezcals from their collection of more than 100 productions. The cost of the tasting is about $10, and you can purchase bottles made from small-batch producers to bring home and thrill your friends. Reservations required. mescaloteca.com
Despite the name, this has nothing to do with the alcoholic drink, except it may help you sweat some of it out. A temazcal is a pre-Columbian sweathouse ritual that help purify the mind, body and spirit. It sounds like something you might encounter only in rural areas, but we visited one in the back of a retail shopping and dining area. A kind elderly lady led us into a squat clay igloo in a courtyard, and the immense heat and steam engulfed, and initially overwhelmed, us. Covered only in small towels, the woman guided us (in Spanish) through a ceremony that helped us relax our minds and open our hearts. She then had me and my partner cover each other in a sludge that included coffee grounds and blessed us with herbs. After about 30 minutes in the crouched, steaming hut, we rinsed ourselves and went inside for an hourlong massage. The experience left us as relaxed, enlivened and grateful as we’d felt in years. The cost was about $40 per person. Ask your hotel concierge for local options. We had our heavenly experience at Temazcal Zabani ((52) 01 951 514 5352, Garcia Vigil No. 304).
Where to stay
Stroll the wide hallways while taking in views of ornate frescoes, restored tile floors and beautiful open-air courtyards in the palatial and relaxing Quinta Real Oaxaca. The centrally located hotel was originally built in the 16th century as the Convent of Santa Catalina de Siena and later served as a prison. Potted flowers and plants line the corridors, and a heated pool offers a serene retreat. The hotel is just a couple of blocks from major churches, shopping and the city’s botanical garden. Amenities include excellent Wi-Fi service, access to a fitness center, multiple bars and a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The sprawling breakfast buffet includes quiche, eggs with sausage, an array of fresh fruit, pork ribs and much more. Double rooms start around $150 in high season. quintareal.com/oaxaca
Austin connections to Oaxaca
You don’t have to travel to southern Mexico to sample the textures, colors and spirit of Oaxaca.
Marcia Lucas first experienced the wonders of Mexico when she lived there as a child. She has felt a connection with the culture ever since.
She visited Oaxaca for the first time in 1977 on her way to Chiapas and two years later opened the Mexican import and folk art shop El Interior on West Lynn Street.
The energetic Lucas, who makes regular visits to Oaxaca, has formed close bonds with the Zapotec artisans throughout the region.
“You feel their joy. You get a connection with the culture because of that,” Lucas said. “The heart and the hand are really connected.”
The finely curated El Interior includes black pottery from San Bartolo Coyotepec, rugs from Teotitlán del Valle, textiles from Oaxaca, green pottery from Michoacan and much more.
Lucas says she is grounded and inspired by the people she has met in Oaxaca and the harmonious and reciprocal relationship the Zapotec artisans have with nature.
“They nourish my spirit,” Lucas said.
Info: 1009 W. Lynn St. 512-474-8680, elinterior.com
Chef Iliana de la Vega ran the successful El Naranjo in Oaxaca for more than a decade before moving to Austin with her husband, Ernesto de la Vega, in 2006 and eventually opening a restaurant of the same name. The former instructor at the Culinary Institute of America celebrates the Land of Seven Moles with a rotating selection of world-class moles that include the nutty, toasty and chocolatey mole negro made with chilhuacle peppers and the bright mole amarillo.
In addition to delivering Mexico to customers, she takes customers to her native Mexico. Chef de la Vega guides weeklong trips to Oaxaca that include tours of historical sites, food markets, the city’s best restaurants, cooking classes and more. The next culinary and cultural tour takes place Feb. 21-27. The cost is $2,600 and includes all meals and hotel stay. More information on El Naranjo’s website.