Food Tourism in Mexico?

A bin of Mole Negro mix in a Oaxaca marketI recently received the following note from a reader who is planning a week-long trip to Mexico for his dad’s 70th birthday.

Daniel writes:
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?

Churpa responds:

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:

“My first recommendation when it comes to foodies is Susana Trilling (www.seasonsofmyheart.com). Unfortunately, she has nothing available in Dec or Jan–but she does have a Yucatan /Campeche tour in mid February that should be fabulous.”
Other options
You might also want to check out Viator.com. This company offers day tours in Oaxaca, such as this interesting-sounding one to Zaachila Market. They also offer a bunch of food tours in Mexico City and a week-long tour that covers Mexico City and Oaxaca, though that sounds a little hectic to me. I have never taken a Viator tour, but last year the company tracked me down and asked me to write their section on Oaxaca food. So, I mean obviously they are discerning individuals, right? And since they offer inexpensive day tours, it wouldn’t be a huge gamble.
Winging it?
You could also skip the guided tour, fly into your chosen city, get a hotel room, and then spend the week exploring the food markets and street stalls, plus visits to recommended restaurants, shopping trips for rare raw supplies, and maybe a specialized cooking class. If you don’t speak Spanish, you could hire a local interpreter. You don’t necessarily need to reserve an interpreter ahead of time. You can always ask for a recommendation at your hotel. Or this being Mexico, I’d count on finding a friendly local who can give you a good recommendation. Finding someone you like and can work with is important, so I’d hire someone for just a day and see if it works. If the person is not to your liking, you can find someone else for day 2.

Woman at food booth in Oaxaca food market in downtown Oaxaca, Mexico.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.

Mexico City recommendations:
Tacos! Tacos! Tacos! There is nothing better than wandering the Centro Historico, where you can sample hundreds of hole-in-the-wall taqueries. Also, again with the food markets, including the Mercado Medellin Night Market, the Tuesday market in the Condesa District, and of course the famous  Mercado San Juan. For more info, check out the excellent blog Good Food in Mexico City or buy a copy of Nicholas Gilman’s book by the same name.
Accommodations: I again recommend staying in the Centro Historico, home to ancient architectural wonders, spacious plazas, and the world’s best tacos. My favorite lodging is the Hotel Isabel, a  Colonial classic with a storied past. Again, the Isabel is very Mexican and not very fancy. But there are many hotels in the district, and most of them are lodged in beautiful old Colonial buildings. Staying in the Centro Historico gives you an interesting, reasonably safe base of operations and it’s easy to catch the subway or cabs to fancier food destinations such as La Condesa or Polanco.
Speaking of fancy, you probably already know that Mexico City is home to some of the world’s hottest chefs, including Enrique Olvera. I was too busy with the tacos to stop by the world famous Pujol, but I imagine it’s worth your time.
Also, if you want general information on Oaxaca, Mexico City, eating in Mexico, Mexican food markets, traveling in Mexico, Mexican culinary customs, and much more, don’t forget to pick up a copy of the latest edition of that perennial classic...

Plus: Hey readers! I know you are an informed lot. Anyone got any recommendations for food tours or cooking classes in Mexico?

 

8 Responses to “Food Tourism in Mexico?”

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  1. Tina Rosa says:

    Great advice! So many good ideas….Daniel came to the right place!

  2. Bill Cirino says:

    Just can’t help myself.

    I have spent a good bit of time on Oaxaca and here are my recommendations in no particular order.

    Maria Bonita is good but just down the street is El Escapulario. It has one of the most interesting menus in Oaxaca for traditional fare. May I recommend Pechuga estillo oaxaca , cheese stuffed chicken breast in a Chile Pasilla de Oaxaca and chapulines( grasshopper) salsa… It doesn’t get any more Oaxacan than that, plus it’s incredibly good. Come with time and patience as it’s a one woman show and she apparently does everything…. It’s also her house.

    Across the street in the nook on the wall by Church “Carmen Alto”, three lady’s set up a big comal from something like 10-2 pm and serve some super good street food. The Quesadillas de Chorizo or de flor de calabaza are tasty, and Tacos de Chile relleno are so, so good and not your typical taco. It’s a chile relleno of picadillo shredded on a large fresh made tortilla an rolled up … All freshly made and nicely toasted on the comal… The perfect place for second breakfast!

    While the Empanadas in Oaxaca city are good, the ones in Ocotlan are stellar!.. Head there on market day and savor the yellow mole filled tortilla… But in Ocotlan there is a twist. They add some masa to the mole and a little extra lard. On the comal it absorbs the mole and swells like polenta. The lard seeps out and fries the outside of the empanadas… So, so, so, good. Don’t forget to add the pickled onions and chile salsa!

    If you like Goat, go to Tlacolula on market day and hit the roast goat in the main market.. You can’t miss it. Go to the Tlacolula market even if you don’t like goat, it’s lovely.

    Go and spend all day ( Saturday) in Mercado Central de Abastos on the west end of town. It is huge! and sells everything you can think of. Just the chile section is as big as a supermarket up in the US. You WILL get lost and that’s a good thing… Eat everything you see, and watch your wallet. That goes for every market in Oaxaca and surouding towns. Pick pocketing is real and way too common. Still, this is maybe my favorite place on earth.

    In the center of town there are two big full block sized markets ( but not even close to the size of Abastos) Mercado Benito Juarez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre. They are right next to each other. 20 de Novienbre has lots of food stall that can be good to eat at but what’s really fun are the Tesajo venders in the narrow room on the east wall ( just look for the smoke). Tesajo is the oaxacan version of carne asada and there are 30 -40 venders selling it by the 1 , 1/2 or 1/4 kilo. Pick your vender….just pick one, it too confusing to decide on what vender, pick the amount of Tasajo you want and you will be seated. Then lots of independent contractors will sell you tortillas, salsa, guacamole, onions and chiles to be roasted with your Tasajo, drinks… Etc. Keep track of what you bought and from who as you will be working with 5 or 6 different people all at the same time. It’s crazy, intimidating, fast, smoky, busy, easy to get taken for a little, and the food is incredible. Just do it, you won’t regret it and will surly have a good story or two to take away along with a satisfied belly. I love this place… And Churpa, every time I eat here I think of Steve… He would have LOVED this place. Next to Central de Abastos, this is my second favorite place in the world.

    If your there in December the whole month is one big fiesta so there will be a bewildering amount of food ( and people) everywhere.

    If you can, find out when the “Corn Festival” Teotitlan del Valle. This town is famous for its weaving, but I stumbled on this fiesta one day and it was truly amazing. Everything you could do with corn for the tasting.. It’s a nice place and the food was amazing. They change the
    date every year but it’s in December.

    Last but not least, drink some Tejate. You will see woman in the markets with large bowls full of a strange light grey/brown liquid and a chunky foam on it. It’s a wonderful drink that has been around forever and is only served in the central valley in Oaxaca . It’s non dairy and is made of a long list of cocao, seeds and flowers ground up. It’s light, cool and refreshing with the “foam” on top being like white chocolate foam that melts in your mouth when it warms up…. It’s really good! You almost never see gringos drinking it and am almost always told that I’m the first gringo to buy any from the vender. It’s a shame as it’s super tasty, it just looks odd. Try the Chilacayote drink often served next to the Tajete as well, its made with a roasted squash and lots of sugar. It’s tasty but textually challenging.

    Oaxacas are super proud of there food and food traditions and rightly so. If you see something odd or unusual …ask! People love to talk about there food… Seriously, It’s like an obsession.

    If my trip was mostly about food, I would go to Oaxaca. Mostly because the city is far more intimate than Mexico City and you can walk everywhere, orientation and scale are so much easer to deal with. You can get to know the city in a week easely.. It would take years in Mexico City. December is a very busy month in Oaxaca with back to back fiestas all month. That’s both a good and bad thing. If it’s your first time it’s a good thing as the city will be alive with endless things to do. Bring earplugs…. Seriously. If you have been there a lot in December then a quit January is kind of a relief. If going in December book hotels right away! And Churpa is right…. Pick one or the other. Blowing a day traveling over a week long trip is a wast.

    Bill

  3. churpa says:

    Damn! I’ve been outdone. Thanks for the excellent advice, Bill! Now I’m hungry.

  4. -El Codo- says:

    In a different vein, I seek the tastiest tortillas preferably made they were a hundred years ago. When a cocinera visits her favorite milpa, gathers elotes to be shucked, soaks the kernals in lime water, dries then, then uses a mano y metate, forms the tortilla by hand then cooks it on a comal de barro over lumbre of glowing hardwood coals, it resembles a machine made tortilla as much as Meals Ready To Eat vie with Mexims in Paris or The French Laundry in Napa Valley.

    I guess my level of cuisine appreciation is muy corriente. I’ve eaten countless “specialties” and for the life of me I just cannot work up a lather over this lofty level of cuisine. A really outstanding mole poblano gets my attention, as does a properly prepared plate of cordoniz (quail)..

    But -finding- superb common food is a horse of a different color. Good, better, and excellent are not hard to unearth. “Superb” is a snipe hunt. There’s not much of a market for comadias corrientes autentico. I do eat a couple of meals a week, Tortillas, frijoles y chili and water to drink. But I have to settle for mediocre tortillas. The frijols are cooked in an olla de barro over hardwood.

    Best wishes for you and your dad. I hope your journey is magic!

  5. Lorena says:

    Daniel, I hope you’ll write and tell us about your trip. Though I suppose it’ll just make us have even more cravings for some wonderful Oaxaca food.

    If you’d like some ideas on interesting side trip in the Oaxaca area, take a look at the chapter in “The People’s Guide to Mexico”: The Best of Mexico: The Indian Highlands: Oaxaca and Chiapas: Archaeological Sites, Handicrafts and Scenery; Suggested Itinerary

    Que les vayan bien

  6. Daniel says:

    Wow. I really appreciate all the great insights here. Thank you everyone! At this point
    it looks like we could put something together ourselves with all the potential food sites/events
    to visit – and scrap a pre-made tour. We are still looking into it. I have been to Mexico City once and another brother has been through the Yucatan Peninsula and Oaxaca. Bill, the Tesajo vendors sound so cool. I would definitely like to do that. Churpa, Seasons of My Heart looks interesting. Maybe we can find something in January but we are trying to stay flexible. It’s just making the schedule work for four adults..

    ¡¡Muchas Gracias!!! Daniel

    • Daniel says:

      HI All,

      Felisa, Thank you again for posting my original message and thank you to everyone else for your enthiusiasm and tips. We returned from Oaxaca City almost 2 weeks ago. It was great! We went to the Abastos Market and the Etla Market. At the Etla Market we were led as a group by Yolanda who is an independent guide but also works with Seasons of My Heart. She pointed out many details within the market, leading us to a great lunch but not before we had exquisite tamales, Tejate, sweet potato and ice cream. I tried chapulines. The Etla Market is very functional because they sell everything but it’s more compact than Abastos. You truly receive an education shopping at the market in Oaxaca. Susana Trilling was not feeling well but really gave a informative class. I was involved in the red mole. Others were responsible for the tortilla soup, mamelas, salad and the dessert, which was like a chocolate bread pudding in the form of a mousse.

      Protesters were camped out in the Zocalo bringing attention to the 43 students who went missing months ago. They hung photos of the students and displayed banners. There was tension but people were still eating and socializing around the square each night.

      In the end we took a hike into the mountains and explored medicinal plants.
      We went to Monte Alban. We tasted mezcals. We looked at contemporary art. We met with two Oaxaca weaver families and discussed their businesses. That experience was possible through Envia.org

      Oaxaca City is beautiful and much larger than I expected. I need to go back and explore more art and food and meet more people.

      Hasta la proxima vez!
      🙂 Daniel

  7. Felisa Rogers says:

    Thanks for getting back to us Daniel, and also for starting such a great and informative conversation about my favorite topic. Your letter makes me miss Mexico! Do you recommend Envia.org? Also, which mezcals did you try?