Oaxaca’s lovely colonial center, replete with art and culture, and its perfect winter climate, continue to draw and charm visitors.
The Mexican city is also the starting point of many excursions to village markets, artisan workshops, and pre-Hispanic ruins in the surrounding valleys.
As if this wasn’t enough, Oaxaca is one of the top foodie regions in Mexico, on par with Mexico City according to many. The city itself has some of the best and most varied food in the country, and is the birthplace of mole, rich and complex sauces slow-cooked and made from dozens of ingredients such as chiles, nuts, seeds, onions, garlic, fruits, herbs, and even chocolate.
Here is an all-encompassing guide to Oaxaca’s best food, best restaurants and everything else you’d want to know about the culinary scene:
The main dishes
Oaxacan cuisine features seven varieties of mole, including black, red, green, yellow, and estofado mole. Black mole (negro) is the most complex with over 30 ingredients, and contains lots of dark unsweetened chocolate. These sauces are generally served with chicken, turkey, beef or pork.
Oaxaca also features its own soups, such as tortilla soup, black bean soup, and squash-flower soup. Other specialties include stuffed peppers and tlayudas, Mexican “pizzas” with toppings laid out on a large baked tortilla.
Popular snack foods include quesillo, a type of stringy cheese, chocolate (sweet and crumbly, ideal for making hot chocolate) and, if you’re feeling adventurous, chapulines, which are basically fried grasshoppers.
Oaxaca’s colonial center doesn’t lack restaurants serving local food, so deciding where to eat can be challenging. During the six weeks I spent in the city, I discovered a few favorites where I returned again and again: Nanixhe (for a solo lunch), El Quinque (for lunch with friends), Campane (for a small – or late – dinner) and La Biznaga (for a proper dinner or evening drinks). More on these later!
Local food customs – when to eat what
Mexicans start the day with a coffee and perhaps a pastry, and don’t have their first real meal until 11am or so. This late breakfast consists of tortillas, refried beans, cheese, meat, and runny green and red sauces of varying degrees of spiciness. Go to any food market in late morning (such as 20 de Noviembre or La Merced) and you can get your fill for a few dollars.
The main meal of the day, la comida, is served from about 2pm until 4pm. Thanks to the menu del día usually offered on weekdays, you can fill up for little money. This menu consists of two, three or four courses, and a flavored water (agua fresca), for a set price ranging from 35 to 125 pesos. It always includes at least a soup or salad, and a main course. At the higher end, you also get a shot of mezcal!
With such a big meal taken so late, dinner is usually a much smaller affair. Many restaurants close by 6 or 8pm since Mexicans often just snack at home. The more expensive restaurants and bars remain open until later, sometimes offering entertainment. For dinner, you are ordering à la carte, so meals tend to be more expensive, although the servings are usually larger.
Keep in mind that most places close on Sunday, and some also close on Monday. All the restaurants below are located in the historical center.
Vegetarians are well catered for in Oaxaca. Even vegans should be able to find something without too much effort. Here are a few vegetarian-friendly places to get you started:
Calabacitas Tiernas: This restaurant, which doubles as a cultural center and independent bookstore, serves a vegetarian lunch menu (sometimes vegan) for 90-100 pesos in their pleasant covered courtyard near the northern end of Porfirio Diaz at #1105.
Campane: This Italian café has several well-identified vegetarian dishes and was one of my favorite places for a small dinner or late evening snack. Located in the center of it all at García Vigil and M. Bravo.
100% Natural: True to its name, this restaurant serves healthy food, with some Asian-inspired dishes, in a nice airy space on the southern edge of Llano Park.
Foodie trips from Oaxaca-born Intrepid local leader, Balam Ruiz:
My favorite restaurant in Oaxaca is Azucena Zapoteca. It serves the authentic Mexican dish Chiles en nogada and, unlike many fusion restaurants, is very authentic. The service is good, too! I also recommend visiting Cafe Xiguela, which is based in the historic Barrio de Jalatlaco district (which is a really nice place to walk and enjoy the colonial-style architecture).
Mexico is a very affordable country and most restaurants can be considered budget-friendly. However, the following are particularly good value for the price, especially at lunch:
Nanixhe: Serves tasty three-course lunch menus in a sunny and quiet courtyard. You can pick up a book off the shelf while you wait.
El Quinque: A small family place (only nine tables) with a great-value lunch menu of fresh and well-prepared food. They don’t serve alcohol but you can bring your own. Good English spoken. Closes early in the evening.
Don Juanito: Small chain of taquerias that dish out large servings of filling Mexican food like alambre (grilled meat and vegetables with cheese).
Where to drink (and what to drink)
If you’re looking for good coffee early in the morning, head to Café Brujula, a small chain with two locations on pedestrian street Alcalá. They deliver a North American coffee shop experience, with a 7am opening time to match.
For a more intimate atmosphere, check out Café el Volador, a tiny place with a friendly barista, that serves freshly ground espresso coffee on quiet Xolotl street, just north of the center.
Mexico produces a surprising number of beers. You can find them in bars and restaurants for 25-35 pesos, or in stores for 11-15 pesos a can/bottle. Don’t limit yourself to just Corona and Dos Equis!
Did you know that Mexico makes wine? It’s pretty good too, even though red wine is often served either super cold or way too warm. A good bet, if you want to sample some Mexican wines, is Tastavins, a tapas and wine bar located at Murguia 309. They open at 6pm.
To get a view with your drink, consider Café Praga (they use heating lamps when it gets chilly on the rooftop) or its competitor across the road, Café Crespo (better view but higher prices). Both are located on Allende, next to the iconic Santo Domingo church.
If you want a good margarita, go to La Biznaga or Zandunga (try their tamarind margarita) around the corner on Garcia Vigil.
You can hardly walk a block in the center of Oaxaca without seeing a shop selling mezcal, a mezcaleria (bar to drink mezcal), or advertisement for tours to a mezcal factory. Mezcal is similar to tequila and is another thing the Oaxaca region is famous for. Bars and many restaurants also serve it.
For a special treat
If you want to sample some of Oaxaca’s specialties (mole, soups, mezcal, and so on) without breaking the bank, the following establishments are your best bets. Coincidentally, they’re all located near the Santo Domingo church.
La Olla: serves Oaxacan cooking with an emphasis on organic and local ingredients. It’s a good place to try mole. There is a rooftop patio, and it also features one of the best lunch menus in town.
Los Pacos: This is another great spot to try mole and is a little cheaper than La Olla. Eat in the cheerfully decorated dining room or alfresco on the rooftop.
La Biznaga: An old favorite of locals, expats, and visitors alike, this place has it all: generous portions of nouveau-Oaxacan fusion dishes, vegetarian options, a set lunch menu, and a full bar where you can have a wicked margarita (and try some shots of mezcal).
Top end restaurants
If money is no object, restaurant Catedral serves high-end Oaxacan and international fare, while Los Danzantes and Casa Oaxaca specialize in Mexican fusion. Next time I visit Oaxaca, I’m going to blow my daily budget on one of their meals!
Ready to eat your way through this incredible city? Visit it on Intrepid’s 9-day Mexico Real Food Adventure.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Marie-France Roy x2, Intrepid Travel, Marie-France Roy x2.)