Let’s be real here for a moment. The main reason I came to Mexico was the food. And the one state/city that I dreamt of most in my foodie dreams was of course, Oaxaca. The name alone strikes hunger, and fantasies of mole and chocolate swirl through your mind tantalizingly. Lucky for us, Mexico seems to book up like crazy over Christmas, and so we found ourselves ‘stuck’ in Oaxaca for three weeks over the Christmas and New Year holidays. This gave us ample time to taste this sweet and spicy city!
We had arrived at 11am on the night bus from San Cristóbal, a winding and long drive through the mountains. We dropped our bags, checked into Iguana hostel and then set out to find somewhere to eat. Why waste any time, right? It seemed like every second place we passed was a food joint. There were some incredibly cheap “Menu del Día’s” being offered for just 35 pesos. And usually I would be all over this cheap food, but not in Oaxaca. We came here to eat some serious food. Travis was starving and I wasn’t too hungry, so lucky for us, I didn’t allow his hunger to make decisions for us. We walked and walked and walked checking every place, and I said no to all of them. Finally I recalled that one of the hostel workers Chris had mentioned his favourite place, Boulenc. We searched the map and found it and made our way there. And dear spirits are we ever glad we did! Boulenc turned out to be our go to breakfast joint for our whole trip. We literally ate there at least 12 times. No exaggeration. We tried nearly everything on their menu. It rates as one of the best restaurants I have ever been too. From the exceptional and friendly service, cool building and design, boho decor with plants and old doors as tables, to of course, the phenomenal food.
Want suggestions for what to eat at Boulenc? Try everything. Honestly, we did. Stuck in the line up to get a table? Grab a vanilla clove cream cookie from the bakery while you’re waiting and take a seat because you’ll be knocked over by that scrumptious piece of heaven. Try the house salad with goat cheese, apples, pears, walnuts, and crisp sourdough bread, it’s utterly divine, one of the best salads I’ve tasted – much owed to the locally made cheese! The molletes (the only really Mexican dish on the menu) was a big hit with us and everyone else – we always saw it pouring out of the kitchen. It’s two large slices of ciabatta bread smothered in frijoles (bean paste) and then a very healthy (er, unhealthy?!) serving of Mennonite cheese. Sour cream and pico de gallo come as accompaniments to bring this dish over the top. Can you tell this place slays in bread in cheese? The Turkish yogurt and seasonal fruit is the best I have ever had anywhere, and I order this dish, everywhere. A huge beautiful pottery bowl filled with unsweetened creamy Turkish yogurt, topped with a beautifully arranged array of seasonal fruits such as strawberries, apple, pear, papaya, blackberries and fresh figs. Add a healthy sprinkling of house made granola full of dried fruits, nuts and seeds, and a drizzle of locally sourced honey and you almost have the best yogurt dish there ever was – add the pièce de résistance – a generous green basil leaf- and you’ve got it. This last touch has honestly changed my breakfast game. I will forevermore add basil to my fruit and yogurt dish because it changes the entire taste, taking it to a whole new level of deliciousness.
I don’t quite know how to convey the deliciousness that is the avocado tostados. First off, it’s exactly what you think; it’s every millennial’s brunch – avocado toast. But this is no ordinary avocado toast. The house made sourdough bread is cut about a half inch thick, slathered with a magical garlic butter and grilled on the flat top. Trust me when I tell you that you don’t understand what an avocado should actually taste like until you’ve eaten an avocado in Mexico. The mother land. The perfect green tender flesh is sliced and laid to cover the entire two pieces of toast. Then olive oil is splashed across the green goodness and a healthy sprinkling of coarse sea salt. We have ordered this Every. Single. Time. That’s how good it is. I think they must use sorcery on this dish, there’s no other explanation…!
Quesillo is another thing that eludes a description that does it justice. This famous local cheese is often seen in large balls – the process of making the cheese involves stretching it out into long ribbons and then rolling into balls like yarn. It’s stringy texture is similar to mozzarella and brings to mind the fun of childhood cheese strings. The taste is amazing – salty and strong. It’s stringy and squeaks on your teeth. But the best part is that the moisture level is low – which means… your can fry it! Most sandwiches at the cafe feature this cheese, a few offer a delicious goat cheese, but quesillo is the star in Mexico. the vegetariano and jamon y quesillo (ham and cheese) sandwiches were are favourites from the sandwich selections. And all of the breads are house made and stand up to french bakery standards
Feeling something a little more decadent for your brunch? The gluten free banana pancakes will satisfy that sweet tooth without making you feel terrible for basically indulging in cake for breakfast. Three perfectly fried and stacked pancakes topped with banana slices and drizzled in house honey are set off with the crunchy house made granola with yummy toasted pumpkin seeds and peanuts, sesame seeds and puffed quinoa. A dollop of citrus butter (instead of whipped cream, and trust me, it’s so much better than whipped cream!) on the side and a smear of berry coulis and you have the perfect pancake dish; not too heavy, not too sweet, a bit of crunch and a whole lot of yum!
Needless to say, our first foodie stop in Oaxaca was outstanding. Talk about setting the bar high on day one! So when we got back to the hostel I began my research. Where would we eat? What would we eat? Soon my list was long and my taste buds were watering. It was inevitable that we would be having breakfast daily at Boulenc. And since we were enjoying sleeping in, that likely meant only one other meal a day. Which was good news for our budget, which we knew we would be going over while in Oaxaca. But hey, how often are you living in one of the most extraordinary culinary cities in the world? Carpe diem, right? We said we would let up on the budget while here so we could experience some truly great food. And boy did we ever!
Each day in Oaxaca was pretty chill; we slept in, went for brunch at Boulenc, and then talked about where we should eat dinner, and in the in between times, wandered the city. The first joint that topped my list was a place we almost went to on our first day when we were wandering around: Cabuche. We passed it by at first because it was too expensive at first glance, for our budget, anyhow. But a fellow traveller had been there and raved about the Pozole – a flavourful soup made from hominy (a process of adding lime to dried maize to help break it down). It often has stewed meat and is then garnished with greens, radishes, avocado, onion and lime. Whatever they make that delicious red broth with (I ordered the pozole rojo which was the popular one in Oaxaca) , it was enchanting. The flavour with all the garnishes was out of this world. The price was steep for a soup by Mexican standards (100 pesos), but it is still the best pozole I’ve had in Mexico.
The next place on our hit list was called La Popular. True to it’s name, the place was packed in the evenings. So we went for lunch around noon one day and had the place all to ourselves! We over ordered as usual and got pozole, the wild mushrooms (which the Oaxaca region is known for) and of course a cochinita pibil sandwich to bring us back memories of the Yucatan! Everything was great, but the wild mushroom dish was the star! We did make the mistake of thinking the green table sauce was mashed avocados and smeared an excessively generous helping all over our pork sandwich, only to realize far too late it was indeed, very hot sauce. It was the hottest my mouth had been thus far in Mexico. I couldn’t even talk. I just stared into the abyss with my jaw slack, the saliva pooling around my gums, swaying in my chair. Travis’s voice called me back to reality only because he mentioned the magic words: “do you want a cold coke?”. I nodded in a daze. I pounded back the entire thing trying to crush the heat in my mouth with the bubbly cold bite of coca cola. It took another ten minutes before I was myself again. Clearly a strong lesson was learned this day. Always test the sauce on the table first. Always.
Our next food adventure wasn’t at an actual location, but an event that we just so luckily happened to be in town for – the Oaxacan Chocolate Festival – yes please! We had seen a poster for it La Popular and marked the location in our maps for a a few days later. We got stuck in bed that day binge watching Dark on Netflix and at 5 minutes prior to the festival start, I rolled us out of bed and said we might as well check it out. I am so thankful I had the sense to do so because this festival was amazing! A live ten man horn and bongo band was blasting powerful music into the courtyard that was all strung up with pretty off-white christmas lights. The place was crawling with people and nine booths were set up along the perimeter, each booth exhibiting their brand of local chocolate. The best part for us poor backpackers? It was all free!
We went to every booth and were given a freshly made sample of their chocolate in drink form, while men wandered the grounds handing out sweet bread to dip in your chocolate drink, as is the custom in Mexico. You could sample chunks of the chocolate itself too, but the best way is of course in drink form, preferably made with warm milk. Two booths were making traditional drinks, Bu’pu and tejate, which were by far the winners of the night. Thick, foamy, chunky and corn based, the women used a wooden rod in a large clay bowl and created a frothy mixture by twisting the wooden rod back and forth rapidly. Needless to say, before the night was over we both had a bit of a tummy ache and were quite clearly, chocolate drunk. We had intoxicated grins plastered to our faces as we held our half drunk cups of chocolate milk in our hands, eyes glistening, bodies swaying to the music. Suddenly there was an eruption of fire works (not unusual of course, in Mexico) and a sign proclaiming “Festival del Chocolate 2017” was lit up in fire. The crowd screamed and clapped and the band played even louder. It was all a little surreal, to know we just sort of stumbled across a poster and thought “why not?”, and ended up at an incredible festival where people were practically pushing chocolate into your hands and mouths – we actually had to say no eventually, we were so full! One thing is for sure, Oaxaca loves its chocolate! If you’ve never had Mexican chocolate, you’re missing out, it’s an entirely different experience. Their chocolate is laced with sugar and often cinnamon, giving it a unique flavour that makes for amazing hot chocolate!
Our next taste of Oaxaca was an exciting one for Travis, but one I didn’t take part in. We had an exciting day of sightseeing with two friends from the hostel. We hired a taxi to go see the girthiest tree in the world, and some petrified waterfalls. Árbol del Tule is a 2000 year old tree with a width that is truly unimaginable. It is an absolute spectacle to see the ample trunk spread over such an incredible distance. It doesn’t seem possible for a tree to grow so immense, but grow she did. I highly recommend stopping in to see this majestic beauty if you’re in the area, pictures and even videos cannot do her justice.
We quickly moved on after being awed, back to the taxi. Our driver wasn’t too sure where he was going so he kept stopping to ask people along the way. And his taxi ID picture didn’t match his face, which worried us slightly, but all for naught, as we made it there and back safe and sound. An hour later we arrived at Hierve del Auga – which translates to boiling water – which is a slight misnomer, as the water is not even warm in the slightest. However, spring water, heavily saturated with calcium carbonate trickled over the cliff sides and petrified over time (kind of like stalactites) to create the surreal spectacle of the frozen waterfall. The sight from the top where you enter the grounds is nice, but it doesn’t compare to the sights you get if you take a hike along the path to the bottom of the falls. There is a man there that told us we had to have a guide and the price was fair enough between us, so we went with him. The plus side was we had someone to take a group photo for us! Though he did miss us in the frame entirely on a couple…! You’re up quite high, there are a fair few stairs and it is hot, so be prepared for a wee work out! But I promise, it’s entirely worth it!.
After visiting the prodigiously huge Tule tree and Hierve del Auga, we stopped in a community on the way back to Oaxaca to grab a bite at the market, which was known for it’s goat. We walked past booth after booth of little old women roosting on stools over their red hot coal stone ovens, huge steel pots perched precariously on them, whole goat heads boiling inside. It wasn’t quite my scene, but Travis was salivating and he and Henrique split an order of goat which they raved about. I ate some of the tortillas 😛
My friend Angela and her husband Jeremy happened to be coming through Oaxaca so I excitedly made plans to meet up with them and do what we do best – eat! We met first of course, at Boulenc for brunch and then made plans to head to the carnival that was in town. What better place to sample local food than a carnival? Churros were devoured. Palomitas (popcorn) sampled. Cotton Candy found it’s way into my hands (and mouth!). Corn dogs were eaten as appetizers. And of course, some top notch tacos! Games were played, strange prizes were won and bellies were filled. I never give up a chance to visit a local carnival and try the fair eats!
The next day we checked out the Botanical Gardens, and while we tried valiantly (okay, Jeremy did) to sneak in and give ourselves the tour, we failed and had to tag along with the crowd. I never knew cacti could grow so large, and so diverse! For dinner that night we really stepped it up and decided to go to one of the top rated restaurants in Oaxaca city, Casa Oaxaca. We could only get a reservation for 10pm so we took what we could and showed up very hungry. This was without a doubt the fanciest restaurant I have ever been to; the service was unparalleled. We must have had four to five people taking care of us at a time. Our chairs were pulled out, our jackets and purses taken, our napkins were laid on our laps for us. We were not allowed to do anything for ourselves! When we had to go to the bathroom, our chairs were pulled out, held for us (no joke hey waited by our seat to pull it back out until we returned!), and then pushed back in, with napkin laid back on our laps. To be honest, it was a little over the top for me! They definitely treat you like you’re a Queen here. We half expected them to start feeding us!
My favourite part of the whole meal was the server who came to our table with his own pop-up table and ingredients to make salsa from scratch! We could choose how spicy we wanted it and how many chapulines (grasshoppers!) we wanted in it. The salsa was outstanding and wonderfully fresh. We had him leave the chapulines on the table and snacked on them throughout. We each ordered a different main, which was nice so we could all try a bite of each others. I had the pavo con mole negro (turkey with black mole sauce), Travis had the pulpo (octopus), Jeremy had the cochinita (suckling pig) and Angela had the pato (duck). The dishes were all exceptional, and the presentation was exquisite. It was definitely the best mole I’d had in Mexico thus far. For a backpackers budget, this place is definitely not affordable, but we wanted to splurge a little in Oaxaca. This place specializes in taking traditional Mexican food and preparing it with some serious fancy flair! I have no shame in admitting my favourite part was of course the dessert: Guava tart with rose petal ice cream… what?! Yum!
Alas, we did eventually take a break from the food scene, but only because it was Christmas and we wanted to make a home style Canadian christmas dinner at our hostel. We of course supplemented our home cooking with some treats from Boulenc’s bakery. Our breakfast egg and avocado sandwiches were made with their focaccia and the treats we left out for santa were their delectable vanilla clove cookies.
But as soon as the holidays were over we were back in the streets of Oaxaca in search of the next best meal, which wasn’t hard to find. We had been recommended Los Dazantes by our friend Matt whom we met in San Cristóbal, but the two times we tried to get a table they told us it was a whomping hour and a half wait…! Which was unacceptable for hungry beasts like us. So finally we made it there at 5pm one evening, nice and early! And were told it would only be… 45 minutes?! We were dedicated this time, so we waited. And that wait lasted all of 10 minutes! So if you try to get a table, don’t be perturbed by the ridiculous wait time, they just say that for some reason. And it is definitely worth the wait!
One of the best parts about Los Dazantes if the nut bread and cardamom butter they serve you as a free starter. I didn’t know cardamom butter was a thing, but I am now obsessed! We had the pulpo (octopus) tostados and the duck tacos to start. The pulpo was amazing, the tang of the citrus fruit made the flavours absolutely pop, and the octopus was so tender. The duck tacos were good, but actually seemed to pale in flavour comparison after the octopus! For mains, we ordered the wild mushroom lasagna and the mushroom encrusted stuffed chicken in mole (like I said, wild mushrooms are boss in Oaxaca!).
Both dishes were phenomenal but as usual, we over did it, and had to take some leftovers home. In fact, I was so uncomfortably full that I actually debated not getting dessert… I KNOW RIGHT?! Thankfully I came to my senses and didn’t make that disastrous mistake. I told Travis to secretly order a dessert for me because I couldn’t choose. I wanted to be surprised! The boy did well, he did very well. It was without a doubt in the top three desserts I have ever had in my life. Flan de Queso Cabra is life changing. A delicate and light goat cheese flan that isn’t overpowering or sweet, topped with a fig compote, candied pecans, pumpkin seeds and almond slices, drizzled with honey and dollops of Oaxacan chocolate, and topped with their signature candied rose petal. I get tongue tied just thinking about how perfect this dessert was. I was so full, yet this dessert was so light and delicious that I was able to devour every morsel without the least difficulty, and even begrudge Travis for daring to have a bite or two. It was as if someone took my favourite parts of a cheese platter (figs, goat cheese, nuts, honey, chocolate) and made them into the perfectly balanced dessert. I may spend the rest of my life trying to duplicate this masterpiece.
There was one last major ‘fancy’ restaurant we wanted to make it to -Pitioni. Recommended by a fellow foodie traveller, they have a tasting menu that is supposed to be phenomenal. Expensive for our budget, but worth it they say. We were running short on time so we tried once more (the last time we tried they were closed). We were sure they were open this time, as it said so online. However, we turned up mid afternoon and they were closed for a private event! No! So we wandered down the street, defeated, starving, pitiful, and wandered into Gourmand, a place that specializes in charcuterie. Well, well, well. I just so happen to specialize in eating charcuterie! We ordered the board for two and devoured their house made cured meats, dried fruits, nuts and cheeses and washed it down with a Mexican Root Beer (that’s a thing?!) float. We were pleasantly surprised and actually hoped we had more time to return to try more on the menu, but alas it was time to move to the mountains for a few days.
After hiking 40km in the surrounding mountains through the pueblos mancomunados, we were gifted with another day and a half in Oaxaca before moving on to Mexico City, so we hit the final place on our list: Itanoni. This place is known for maize – that’s right, the staple of the Mexican diet, cultivated by the indigenous people over 10,000 years ago- corn. Everything here is based off maize and made with it in the open style kitchen right in front of you. I honestly didn’t know 90% of the things on the menu, so we decided to just be adventurous and order a random assortment of a few things. It was our favourite Mexican ordering style – they give you a piece of paper with everything listed and you merely check the quantity of what you want! My favourite was atole, the thick, hot maize drink with a hint of cinnamon and cacao. It was like drinking liquid cream of wheat (though in this case, corn), a favourite grandma special of mine. It warmed you down to the soul. If you try anything here, make sure this is it! The tetelas were a close second, a triangular shaped quesadilla, oozing with cheese. And I can’t forget the ese- which was a tortilla filled with hoja santa, frijoles and queso – yum!!!! The hoja santa lends a beautiful aromatic flavour to this otherwise typical dish. The food is delicious, fresh cooked in front of you, and very affordable. I really wish we would have eaten here earlier in our stay because I wanted to come back and try so much more on their extensive menu. Next time!
And alas, we come to our very last day in the city. What better way to end our foodie tour in Oaxaca than a cooking class with one of the local chefs? We signed up with Chef Oscar from Casa Crespa. Only one other person signed up so it felt like a private class which was a real nice treat! We were greeted with our choice of coffee or hot Oaxacan chocolate (heck yes!) and Chef Oscar sat down with us to eat rosca de reyes- which is a special sweet bread that is shared in the days preceding January 6th (El Die del Reyes, Day of the Kings). Baked into the bread is a tiny baby Jesus doll and whoever gets the doll in their piece then has to host a party on February 2nd. We dipped our bread in our hot drinks and Oscar shook his head as he pulled the doll our of his piece. “I always get it! Every time!” he said laughing.
We started the class after these introductions over coffee with a trip to the market to learn about everything at the local markets which was super helpful (and we should have done in our first week in Mexico!). Then a stop to the corn press shop (no idea what it’s actually called, oops) where maize is pressed into paste for making tortillas, and back home to begin. We got to set the menu together, which was also really wonderful. Our menu was three slightly different salsas (one made with a maguey worm! It’s crazy that one tiny little worm can change the flavour that much!), that we had with cheeses; a squash blossom soup; a mole made with flying ants(!), that we had over pork; my absolute favourite – the stuffed chilies with a fruit mole; mole rojo (similar to a mole negro in that is uses chocolate, mmm!) over chicken; and a chocolate ice cream made with Oscar’s house made chocolate. We learned a lot in the class, especially that in Mexican cooking you have to blend a lot of stuff, because it is ALL about the sauces! The food was phenomenal, and even better because we all helped create it. It was without a doubt my favourite meal in Oaxaca, especially those chilis rellenos, damn! Thankfully we got the recipes for everything, and the chilies is something we just may be able to recreate back home!
Somehow we spent three and a half weeks just eating our way through this awesome city, with a couple of little adventures in between. It’s no wonder Oaxaca is such an upcoming culinary hotspot known worldwide. The culture here thrives on food. And I didn’t even touch on the street food – the elotes, the marquesitas, the tejate (DO try this!), and the tacos. That’s a whole other world…!