Oaxaca is more an experience of the senses than merely a place. It’s magic. Officially my favorite place in all of Mexico, it’s a small, ancient city rich with atmosphere, the smell of spices permeating the air, baskets everywhere piled high with mole blends or chapulines (fried grasshoppers).
Hundreds of years old churches, live bands and street carts enliven cobblestone streets, lampposts and brightly colorful buildings with a romance that envelops, living on vividly in memory.
Being in the land of mezcal, with hundreds of mezcal producers in the surrounding valleys and mountains, and some of the best food in Mexico (and the world), Oaxaca is a dream destination in taste. It does take work to get there, whether flying in to a small airport or driving 7 or so hours from Mexico City through endless fields of agave plants, mountains, farmland and ever-changing terrain. But to experience both the state of Oaxaca and its namesake city is to be forever marked.
Exploring mezcal distilleries is a story all its own (see my article on mezcal distillation). I spent time with jimadors (agave plant harvesters) as they chopped agave plants with a machete, and with mezcal distillers as they distilled way up winding, narrow roads in the Oaxacan mountains in Sola de Vega.
After a day up in the mountains, we ended with a home-cooked meal at one distiller’s home with a number of distillers and their families. We filled up on mole they worked two days cooking for us, sipping mezcal as kids and dogs ran around and grandmothers looked on.
About an hour outside Oaxaca city in Matatlan, I chopped roasted agave with a machete myself. This distillery was described as “modern” compared to what we saw up in the mountains, as they use a copper alembic still and crush agave plants with a horse and wheel. Still clearly Old World but not as ancient as clay pot distillation.
How could I forget stopping roadside up the mountains where two women made salsa, grilled Oaxacan cheese quesadillas on a streetside grill, while we drank from coconuts they’d just hacked open with a sword as we gazed across mountain vistas? Spend some time exploring the region and you will surely happen upon similar, once-in-a-lifetime moments.
Capturing the aromas and feel of Oaxaca is virtually impossible. It must be experienced to be believed.
Listing best restaurants is not the most relevant way of eating through Oaxaca. Among the best food of the city is street food or from the stalls of labyrinthine Benito Juarez market (Mercado de Benito Juarez).
Oaxaca is all about mole, mole, mole, and I was as ecstatic to taste mole through the region as I was to sip mezcal.
As my favorite Mexican dish, mole is the most complex of sauces, sometimes layered with 30-40 ingredients, intricate spices, or in the case of what I consider the pinnacle – mole negro – it is earthy and rich with chocolate, nuts, spices, chiles.
Mercado de Benito Juarez is filled with mole purveyors selling spice blends (easiest to bring home), mole pastes, and more chilies than I’ve ever seen, even in California or around Mexico.
The market houses stalls of produce, clothing, herbs, baked goods, mezcal, Oaxacan chocolate (another love: simultaneously grainy, sugary and earthy), and food stalls. Raw meat hangs from the rafters, Oaxacan cheese is stacked in massive blocks, and one can pull up to a counter to eat giant tlayudas: crispy tortilla discs layered with refried beans, meat, cheese and onions.
Elote (corn on the cob with mayo or creme fraiche and cayenne or chili powder) is served from street carts, as are cups of frothy champurrado (which I enjoy at home in SF), a chocolate-based atole (masa-based beverage), watery yet grainy with corn and spices like cinnamon or anise. Another fascinating Oaxacan drink is tejate, a cool elixir made from maize (yes, corn is a common drink ingredient), mamey pits, and fermented cacao bean with a cacao flower foam.
The aroma of Oaxacan hot chocolate and moles permeates the air. Oaxaca is a sensual dream, the Old World, romantic Mexico I imagined as a child.
Though I recommend wandering the city and markets or braving street carts, here are a few edible recommendations.
Having long been familiar with Los Danzantes mezcal at home in San Francisco, the brand’s restaurant, also named Los Danzantes, is in the center of Oaxaca City. Enter through a courtyard marked by a pool to an open-air dining room of dramatically high adobe brick walls, draped with canvas awnings, with sky visible around the edges. Another pool and palms mark the room, next to an elevated, cabana-like bar area. The restaurant feels like tropical escape, another world all its own.
Then… a dramatic thunderstorm hit as our multi-course dinner began. Rain seeped through the edges of the canvas, creating a loud-yet-soothing lull throughout the meal. Until it began hailing. Frozen ice balls zig-zagged in through every opening, splashing up from the pool, hitting us squarely in the face. As we laughed and exclaimed, my friends and I scooped up hail and threw it at each other. It was an unreal 10 minutes. Time stopped and we felt alive, like children, far from the rest of the world, fed by mezcal Negronis and squash blossom tamales… an entirely bewitching moment in time.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the studious library of mezcal, Mezcaloteca. With over 400 mezcals in a dark wood, intimate bar lined with green lamps, here one can dig deep into mezcal. Choose from hundreds of producers who either have known brands or who you’d never find otherwise, all house bottled and labeled in detail, from distillers name to agave varietals.
On the classic side, don’t miss Oaxaca’s oldest mezcal cantina, La Casa Del Mezcal. Its wood-lined bar is graced with a vintage jukebox, while ceiling, walls and lamps look like the Aztec world collided with a Tiki bar. Just a couple blocks from Mercado de Benito Juarez, the street outside the bar is lined with chapulines (fried grasshopper) purveyors. My recommendation is to chow down on a few salty, savory grasshoppers, then slip into the bar for mezcal.
HOTEL CASA de SIERRA AZUL
I fell in love with my charming hotel, Casa de Sierra Azul, and its engaging owner, who welcomed us graciously, as if we were visiting her home. A handful of Western touches (think fluffy towels, “mini-bar” of American snacks like Pringles, etc…) elevate this from other hotels nearby, as does the beautiful 1800’s architecture.
Besides the rich hospitality, one taste of their mole negro (which I had every morning for breakfast it was that good) and I was grateful to wake up here. The hotel is a convenient few blocks from the Mercado Juarez and oldest cathedrals.
Despite often dry, arid weather, I hit the region this April when every day yielded one strong thunderstorm, or even a wild hailstorm. On the day I arrived at Sierra Azul, I checked in just as a heavy rainshower hit the center courtyard surrounding a fountain and lined with rooftop cactus. Giant ceramic pots housing frogs filled to overflowing with raindrops, the courtyard was awash in lightening. I came out of my room to watch the storm unfold in all its splendor. I will forever associate Oaxaca with passionate storms and this heartwarming hotel.