The prevailing scent in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, is a mix of charcoal, pork fat and buttered corn. It stays with you. This is a city where good food is democratic. Whether it is served fast on street corners or with gentility on tables in fancy restaurants, the core ingredients remain the same: corn, chillies and beans – the backbone of a diet as old as the Zapotec and Mixtec cultures who lived here before the arrival of the Europeans with their pigs.
Antojitos – small, on-the-go bites – reign supreme: tacos, tamales, tlayudas, tortillas. These are the dishes that have launched an armada of Mexican restaurants in cities all over the world, from Thomasina Miers’s Wahaca chain in Britain to Enrique Olvera’s Cosme in New York. Wherever you eat antojitos in Oaxaca, the raw ingredients will have emerged from the labyrinthine alleyways of the Mercado de Abastos. Street chefs here are respected as much as restaurateurs and the care they lavish on their offerings leads people of all classes to queue for their food.
PLACES TO TRY
Casa Oaxaca el Restaurante
Alejandro Ruiz, head chef at Casa Oaxaca el Restaurante, is largely credited as the first person to bring the vibrancy of street food upmarket and indoors. At Casa Oaxaca, the salsa is made in front of you with tomatoes, tomatillos, herbs and chillies chopped and pounded together to your heat preference. Folded tortillas called tetela are stuffed with rabbit, sharp adobo sauce, black-bean paste and fresh guacamole. Crunchy tamales de frijol with oozy queso oreado are as good as those you might grab from a makeshift street-side oven.
Mercado de Abastos
Produce from across the entire region finds its way to this souk-like market. Smallholders who arrive from all over the province lay out piles of their particular varietal of chilli and local vegetables on tarpaulins. It is possible to discover something new in the market every week. One alley may be filled with stall after stall of chillies, another with the smoke of pork fat and fried onions. Come early through door six to sector two of the market and queue for Valentina’s memelas – open tortillas cooked on a cast-iron plate and loaded up with thinly cut skirt steak, egg, chillies and salsa, alongside tiny, creamy avocados so soft you can eat the skin.
Chef Rodolfo Castellanos’s menu is, at heart, street food – but not quite as you might know it. In 2016 he was declared Mexico’s top chef. He loads tostadas with tuna, topping them with a Oaxacan chilli called chilhuacle, watermelon and pork rinds, and serves sweetbreads with black-bean paste, chilli passilla and avocado. He presents aged rib-eye steak with a tamale of black bean and hoja santa (an aromatic herb) and a tabiche chilli sauce. The depth and balance of flavour comes from skills he learned in the kitchens of Monaco and San Francisco, alongside his flair at showcasing a gastronomic culture thousands of years old.
Tacos del Carmen
Restaurant chefs regularly line up with everyone else to get their antojito fix. Many will head to the corner of Calle de Jesús Carranza and Calle Garcia Vigil to Tacos del Carmen, a fixture of the city’s street-food scene for 43 years. String cheese, beans and mushrooms are piled onto tacos that can be topped with slightly charred, chubby, spicy sausages cooked on coals on a comale (earthenware griddle), or chilli de agua and picadillo (mixed pork, spices, cheese and beans), all covered in a relish of slick onions, lime and salt.
If you can’t make it to Oaxaca, try its food here:
Brooklyn, New York: Claro, London: Santo Remedio, Copenhagen: Sanchez