Top Things to do In Oaxaca, Part 1

A story about the top things to do in Oaxaca could begin and end with the word, “food”.

One could simply say, it’s all about the food. You could spend your time in this wonderful city doing nothing but market visits, cooking classes, mezcal tastings and consuming a series of wonderful meals. But, saying it’s all about the food would mean you would miss the interesting architecture, the pleasant plaza and the fine museums and art galleries.

We enjoyed all of these things during a recent week in Oaxaca. Let me tell you about some of our favorites. It begins on a Sunday afternoon after winding our way through the mountains from the Straits of Tehauntepec.

We stopped at Tlamanalli, a traditional Oaxacan restaurant in Teotitlan del Valle, a village known for its weaving on the east side of Oaxaca city. A complimentary mezcal, pepitas and a little chile powder started us off . That was followed by chicken in a red mole sauce (coloradito) and a squash blossom soup. Fresh ingredients and attention to detail insured that both dishes rated an enthusiastic YUMM.

Squash blossom soup at Tlamanalli

The food theme continued when we arrived at Casa Machaya, the lovely home of Alvin and Arlene Sparkman. Their house, where we had rented an apartment for a week, sits on a hillside in the northern part of the city. The Sparkmans, who have been visiting Oaxaca since 1991 and moved here full time seven years ago, greeted us with a shot of mezcal and freshly cooked chapulines.

Chapulines are a member of the insect family normally eaten in Oaxaca – and not normally eaten in other parts of North America. They are small grasshoppers, but you just don’t pop a dead or dried (or alive) grasshopper in your mouth. We were told it is important to get them at a certain time of year and prepare them to be eaten fresh. No, they don’t taste like chicken. They have a nutty taste, but they take on the flavor of the butter, garlic, salt and chile in which they are sauteed(remove the legs so they don’t scratch your throat on the way down the hatch). They were surprisingly good, and we ate more than one. The mezcal was good, too, and I had more than one.

Based on many of Alvin’s recommendations and reviews, we ate well during our week in the city and during our visits to surrounding villages. He is a wealth of information, since he works as a guide, has become a mezcal aficionado and leads food tours. His advice also led us to interesting artisans: makers of mezcal, knives and alebrijes (fanciful, hand-carved, hand painted animals).

We’ll cover the city in this report and the village visits in the next.

1. La Merced Mercado – I covered this place in the previous post about the cooking class at La Casa de los Sabores. It is the mercado that we visited with our chef/instructor Pilar Cabrera. It is an amazing market, a little further from the historic center and, therefore, not really a tourist destination. It is everything a Mexican mercado should be: produce, meats, breads, food stalls, flower stalls, dry goods, etc.

We returned and ate breakfast at Las Florecita, one of the larger and more interesting food stalls, on a Saturday morning. We weren’t sure about the size of the portions, so rather than hold back, we went big. Hot Chocolate with pan dulce, (sweet bread) for dipping, a flor de calabaza quesadillas (squash blossom flowers), a tlayuda (a big tortilla loaded with ingredients like a pizza) with tasajo (thinly sliced, marinated, grilled beef) and a chile relleno. We should have know something was up when I asked the waiter in Spanish, “Is this too much food?” He grinned and said, “No” and hurried off to the kitchen with our order. It took several trips to deliver all of it. We tried, but couldn’t finish everything. Another major hit on the YUMM scale.

From top left: quesadilla, chile relleno, tlayuda with tasajo

A bowl of hot chocolate and sweet bread

A big bite of a quesadilla with squash blossom flowers

In addition we purchased large amounts of chilhuacle chiles (only available in Oaxaca) for making mole negro, cal for treating our new comal and mixed nuts in salt and chile for the road.

2. La Olla – The restaurant owned by Chef Pilar Cabrera (of cooking school fame) has a menu that is eclectic, but with solid Oaxacan choices. The sopa de flor de calabaza was the best of the trip, nopales (strips of cactus) tacos had a balanced flavor and octopus marinated with chile was unusually good. The menu had several other items we could have ordered, most prominently the mole negro. It was the dish we had cooked the day before in her cooking class at La Casa de los Sabores. It was fantastic in her class, and I’m sure it is fantastic in her restaurant.

Sopa de Flor de Calabaza at Las Ollas

3. Monte Alban – The ruins of the Zapotec city sit high on a plateau to the west of the city. While the site is interesting and the setting is impressive, many of the treasures and art works from the site are in the museum at the entrance and in the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca.

4. Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca – One of the highlights is the permanent exhibit of the treasures found in tomb seven at Monte Alban. Amazing jewelry and carvings in gold, bone, and silver. In addition, we were fortunate enough to visit while an exhibit by Flor Garduño was in one of the main halls. One of Mexico’s most prolific photographers, her new work, “Trilogy” covers thirty years of her career. It is stunningly printed, fascinating in its scope and subject matter, and contains street photography, nature, still lifes and nudes. I would definitely try to see this before it ends, but I can’t tell you when that is, since there is no mention of the closing date anywhere.

Watch for the next post, which will cover our visits to a couple of artisans shops, the ruins of Mitla and the lovely town of Ocotlán.

Then, please sign in a tell us about some of the cool spots that we missed. Because, we are definitely returning to Oaxaca.