I recently received the following note from a reader who is planning a week-long trip to Mexico for his dad’s 70th birthday.
My brothers and I want to take our Dad to Mexico this December or January–Oaxaca and Mexico City maybe. My Dad is a chef and so we were thinking there might be a guide that could show us the best food experiences with the most appropriate accommodations etc. My Dad has been cooking Mexican for years so we want experiences that are not for newbies. I don’t mean we need someone to show us only super exotic/extraordinary food experiences, just a guide that respects the fact that we have experience with Mexican cuisine. We have seen a tour from Intrepid Travel online (which includes food, accommodations travel etc.) but we don’t have any perspective on it. Is it good? Do you know of other tours or individuals/locals that can put something together?
What an intriguing question! You are on the right track with Mexico City and Oaxaca, but if you only have a week, I’d choose one or the other. You could easily spend a week in either city’s food markets. And I mean an entire week, without leaving.
You have a difficult choice because, as you likely know, both cities are renowned for their wicked street foot, sizzling food markets, world class restaurants, and fantastic historical sites. Statistically speaking, Mexico City is safer than Oaxaca, but the Big Enchilada, as we call the capital, can be overwhelming. That said, both cities are gorgeous, fascinating, and highly recommended…
We asked our Oaxaca expert, Stan Gotlieb, for his thoughts on Intrepid tours and his recommendations for food tours in general. None of us have tried Intrepid, but Stan’s impression is that the tours would be better-suited to “Mexico newbies.” He writes:
Oaxaca recommendations: Our Oaxaca correspondents, Billy and Kaki, enthusiastically recommend the restaurant Maria Bonita, which offers authentic cuisine and cooking classes.
As for me, I know nothing about Oaxaca fine dining because I am always so absorbed by the street food and fondas. For a cheapskate like me, the best thing about eating in Oaxaca is the markets, particularly the culinary jewel Mercado 20 de Noviembre. The toothsome food market features giant blocks of food stalls that specialize in various types of regional cuisine. For example, there’s a bakery section, a grilled meat section, and a dizzying array of tortilla-based snacks. I could spend a week eating there every day. Many people are scared to eat street or market food, but they are missing out. Here’s my general advice on what my dad called “street grunting.”
If you have any interest in spirits, I highly recommend taking a tour of the surrounding countryside and sampling some of the local mezcal.
Your dad will also likely want to do some shopping for ingredients. Mercado Juarez has an awesome selection of raw ingredients, including chocolate, mole spices, and piles of dried chiles that are difficult to acquire in the US or even other parts of Mexico. Don’t forget to sample some chapulines!
Accomodations: For the most food-centric location, get a place downtown, in the historic district. We liked Hotel Antonio’s on Independencia, right near the Zocalo. It’s not fancy but it’s clean, reasonably comfortable, affordable, has a nice rooftop patio, and is located in the heart of Oaxaca’s historic downtown. If you want something a bit fancier, you might try Casa de Sierra Azul. I haven’t stayed there, but I stopped in to eat in their courtyard restaurant. The hotel is beautiful and the service was good.
Plus: Hey readers! I know you are an informed lot. Anyone got any recommendations for food tours or cooking classes in Mexico?