As travelers’ awareness of Mexico’s regions has increased, it’s likely that you've heard some buzz about Oaxaca at one point or another. In case you haven’t, here’s what you need to know: The capital of the southern Mexican state of the same name, Oaxaca City may be hard to pronounce—for the record, it’s “wah-HA-kah”—but it’s arguably most notable for having exciting culinary offerings. Aside from food, Oaxaca City is also a nice town for strolling off the calories, with pretty colonial architecture, an appealing pedestrian thoroughfare, a large zocalo (town square), good museums, and lively markets.
Like many parts of Mexico, the state of Oaxaca boasts its own homegrown cuisine. It's said to be the land of seven moles, the most famous of which is mole negro, a rich, dark, chocolate-laced sauce you might have tried on chicken or enchiladas. Tlayudas, which bring to mind a large folded Mexican pizza, are another ubiquitous local specialty. Read on to discover the can't-miss stops for food-and-drink focused travelers.
To familiarize yourself with the flavors of Oaxaca, make the markets your first stop. Just a few blocks below the zocalo, the Mercado Benito Juarez is crowded with kiosks and vendors selling every imaginable edible, from grasshoppers to pork rinds. In the center you'll find stalls selling a cold, chunky corn-based drink (better than it sounds) made with toasted maize flour, fermented cacao beans, pits of the mamey fruit, and flor de cacao. Do as the locals do and give it a stir before drinking.
The Mercado 20 de Noviembre's home in the adjacent building was closed during a recent visit in May, meaning its vendors had moved to temporary stalls on the street surrounding Benito Juarez. No matter: Meat Alley is still an experience you won't find elsewhere. Look for the area with lots vendors selling meat (“carne,” if you need to ask somebody) and grills lining the sidewalk. The ordering process can be confusing since you buy everything a la carte, including vegetables for the grill and even salsas and tortillas. Carniceria Lety simplifies things by selling all the ingredients in one place and offering ample seating. Be sure to get some tasajo, Oaxaca's signature dried beef, and tripe, which emerges from the fire deliciously crispy. Half a kilo of meat is plenty for two people. You'll also want onions to throw on the fire, and a few chilies if you like it spicy.
Assuming you're not marketed out, there's a nice set-up every Friday at El Llano Park, an excellent spot to grab lunch. Elsewhere, the small Mercado Sanchez Pascuas is a worthy breakfast destination. Look for Jugos Angelita to grab a fresh fruit or vegetable juice, then sit down for an excellent chicken mole tamale from the vendor across the way; they're made Oaxacan style, wrapped in banana leaves. If you're not full, pop two tables down to grab a memela, a freshly griddled masa patty spread with a thin layer of asiento (pig grease), beans, then topped with fresh cheese and your choice of meat.
On Sundays, don't miss the huge market in Tlacolula, 30 minutes outside of town. This wonderland of food, household items, clothes, and even live birds stretches on for blocks. In the center is a covered building housing grills as well as several establishments selling barbacoa (lamb barbecue served as tacos and consommé)—(Barbacoa Adolfa is a solid choice. You can also try a good Oaxacan hot chocolate from the nearby vendors.
Occasionally it's nice to sit at a proper table for a meal, which is where the city's excellent restaurants come in La Teca offers the best home-style cooking in town, served on the ground floor and patio of the owner's home. The restaurant specializes in the tasty flavors of the state's Isthmus region. Be sure to start with the famous garnachas, mini disks of fried masa topped with shredded meat and cabbage. For Isthmus cuisine in a hip setting, head to Zandunga (García Vigil 512). The appetizer sampler (more garnachas!) is an excellent accompaniment to the broad mezcal list and terrific micheladas.
Across the street from Zandunga, La Popular is a lively spot that lives up to its name offering Mexican classics like tacos and tortas, plus Oaxacan dishes and ceviche. For casual dining, hit Tacos Alvaro, which makes an excellent al pastor and serves food later than most restaurants in the city; they also serve great pozole, a hominy stew). Unique Itanoni, a short cab or bus ride away from the city center, declares itself to be dedicated to all things corn. That basically means everything is wrapped in a freshly made tortilla of one variety or another—try the de ese, where the masa is pressed into a fragrant leaf of the hoja santa herb and wrapped around your choice of filling.
The local drink of choice in Oaxaca is mezcal, a close cousin of tequila that's also distilled from the agave plant. Anyone with a serious interest in learning how mezcal is made should sign for a day of visiting small palenques, rustic mezcal-making operations, with Alvin Starkman of Mezcal Educational Tours. The Canadian expat's connections to palenqueros in Oaxaca state stretch back 20 years. In his company, you'll visit tiny, family-run operations where horses are still used to pull grinding stones. You can also buy mezcal directly from the producers much more cheaply than in town.
If you’d rather skip the behind-the-scenes look, head straight for the mezcalerias (mezcal bars) that are currently booming in Oaxaca. In Situ is one of the most respected joints, co-owned by mezcal scribe Ulises Torrentera, with close to 200 varieties on the menu. One of the newer options, Mezcalogia, is a dim and intimate little spot with a smart selection of sips. And Txalaparta (“sha-la-PAR-ta”) is not really a mezcaleria, but it is a rambling, fun bar that's popular with locals on weekends—especially on the rooftop patio—with a small though respectable mezcal selection. If you're peckish after drinking here, a tasty consommé vendor sets up on the street just outside on weekends.