Mexico · The Nomadic Life

Where do the Locals Eat in Oaxaca City, Mexico?

Last year, I put Oaxaca City (among several other destinations) on my 2014 travel bucket for a single yet standout reason: the food. From complex moles to simple street food, there’s a reason why Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike praise this region for its cuisine. The city (and region) knows how to cook.

Even before leaving, Jon and I drooled over the photos in Eat Your World’s Oaxaca Food & Travel Guide (which served as a great reference for our future “what’s that?” questions). Rather than creating a “to visit” list, our “to eat” list grew and grew.

“Enjoy this list of the best restaurants in Oaxaca — according to a born-and-raised-Oaxacan-native — that led us through our culinary adventure.”

But then one night, we asked a local where to eat and our list transformed from foods to restaurants. Our Oaxacan-food-insider, a friend’s cousin, put a lot of love and thought into this list and though we weren’t able to make it to all of them, we were never disappointed by those we did. So, rather than let that list fade away in to oblivion on my iPhone, enjoy this list of the best restaurants in Oaxaca — according to a born-and-raised-Oaxacan-native — that led us through our Mexican culinary adventure:

Breakfast


Casa Vertiz, Itanoni, and Street in Oaxaca

Fonda Florecita

Also mentioned in EYW (and, judging the by the other gringos, guidebooks), this stall in the back half of El Mercado de la Merced, near La Calzada de la Republica, had everything you could possibly want in terms of Oaxacan street food. Our friend recommended we try the empanadas, enmoladas, chilaquiles, or tasajo.

To drink, she said, ask for chocolate atole, champurrado, or hot chocolate with pan de muerto. I may have flubbed this one and went for a empanada drenched in mole amarillo — which was more like a quesadilla than what we might normally call an empanada in San Francisco — and a steaming bowl of hot chocolate. I don’t regret it.

Itanoni

I hope you like fresh corn tortillas (I sure do), because that’s Itanoni‘s thing.

This homey antojeria y tortilleria just outside of the historic hub features an impressive selection of ordinary antojitos, or corn-tortilla snacks, and agua fresca that are at the heart of everyday Oaxacan food. Ordinary or not though, the restaurant, owned by Amado Ramírez Leyva, shines out for it’s careful attention to quality, ingredients, and local culinary tradition.

After starting the day off with some fresh blue- and yellow-corn memelas –– toasted corn tortillas topped with cheese and beans — and de ese, an Itanoni classic, it was one of our favorite spots too.

Also a participant of the slow food movement, it’s no surprise that Alice Waters called it one of her favorite restaurants.  After starting the day off with some fresh blue- and yellow-corn memelas –– toasted corn tortillas topped with cheese and beans — and de ese, an Itanoni classic, it was one of our favorite spots too.

Casa Vertiz

Although Casa Vertiz is technically a hotel and very centrally located, something  struck us as we settled in to our chairs: no gringos. After a quick glance around the stylish garden patio, we were clearly the only ones there. It felt like stumbling into Mexican perception of “what makes a nice restaurant”.

Overall, this breakfast spot is a solid place to linger and sip coffee (free refills!) while reading the newspapers. We went for the chilaquiles in salsa verde — which are basically thin strips of tortilla lightly fried and simmered in salsa or mole, and topped with eggs, beans, cheese, or onions. Oh, and lots of coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

Mercado de Ocotlan

Although we never made it here, the Mercado de Ocotlan — open Fridays — bursts with fresh fruits, vegetables, and mouth-watering Oaxacan street food. For those of you who had it on your list to try a handful of chapulines, or fried grasshoppers, you’ll find them here.

If not, fear not. Markets in Mexico are fantastic for discovering a new fruit or vegetable, stumbling on piles of fresh chiles, or sampling a hot, fresh tlayudas, best described as a giant flat bread made of tortilla and topped with beans and cheese. Go hungry, and bring cash.

Lunch & Dinner


Dinner Spots in Oaxaca City, MexicoLa Olla

Just next door to Casa Vertiz in the historic center, La Olla has an impressive cocktail menu and a unique, modern take on traditional Mexican food. Head to the top patio to grab a drink and snack while watching the sun set behind the nearby cathedrals.

We personally loved the guacamole topped with chapulines (grasshoppers); a less intimidating way of trying these little buggers than simply eating them like popcorn. If you’re hungrier than that, stick around awhile and order their menú del día… and possibly another mezcal cocktail.

Tlamanalli (Teotitlán del Valle)

Tlamanalli, and made famous by Anthony Bourdain’s episode of No Reservations in Mexico, got on our list long before we arrived in Oaxaca (since Jon largely preps for trips by watching Anthony Bourdain episodes…). Located outside of Oaxaca City in Teotitlán del Valle — a village also known for it’s rug weaving — an excursion to this restaurant feels like a time warp.

Not only is the village itself rustic and simple, but Tlamanalli specializes in pre-hispanic food — so, food that was made in the Oaxacan region of Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish. Our photo of squash blossom soup may not look the most appealing (according to one Facebook commenter *ahem*) but I promise, it was delicious.

Keep in mind that the restaurant has limited hours and is only open from 1 – 4 for lunch and closed on Mondays. Make a day trip out of it and explore the nearby hiking paths, or build up your appetite haggling for rugs.

La Palapa de Raul

La Palapa de Raul is yet another solid spot for typical Oaxacan dishes, serving up everything from soups to tlayudas and mole. Of course, this is just hearsay for me — sadly, we weren’t able to squeeze this place in. (There’s only so many meals in a day!)

Casa Oaxaca

Both a hotel and a beautifully designed restaurant, Casa Oaxaca would be just the place I’d suggest for a date night (I mean, c’mon, the wine list is longer than the menu — exactly what you’d want for that). Again, this place is centrally located along the cobblestoned and romantically lit historic district and, therefore, a bit touristy.

But hey, if we have someone who knows her stuff backing this place up, then I’m willing to overlook that and enjoy myself whatever fish of the day is being served.

La Teca

You know how sometimes, the best food you have while traveling is at a humble, no-frills, unassuming spot? La Teca, a small family owned restaurant that features cuisine from Istmo, one of the 8 regions in Oaxaca, is that spot.

You can’t go wrong with a place where, when asked “what do you recommend,” they say “how about we bring you a little of everything?”

Of all the places we tried on the list, La Teca was hands down our favorite restaurant for its garnachas, platanos fritos, rich mole sauces, and perhaps the friendliest waiter we met on our whole trip. Also, you can’t go wrong with a place where, when asked “what do you recommend,” they say “how about we bring you a little of everything?”

Ask to sit in the back garden if possible and prepare to roll yourself back to your hotel with this one.

La Pitiona

Similar to La Palapa de Raul and Casa Oaxaca, La Pitiona is yet another gastronomic project in Oaxaca’s historic district that seeks to create “100% Mexican food… like that our mothers and grandmothers would make.” Judging by their menu, seafood makes a regular appearance there (not always that prominent in Oaxaca City). It’s definitely on the fancier side, but if you were thinking “hey, I’d really like a glass of Spanish wine with my torta tonight,” well then, La Pitiona it is.

El Milenario (Tule)

The cozy, designed-like-your-abuela’s-dining room, El Milenario is actually located just outside of Oaxaca City in Tule — a standard stop on most tours for its famous gigantic cypress tree. “Forget the tree, just go to El Milenario,” our friend said. Apparently, the guys over at Dig in Mexico agree. As for us — I couldn’t tell you, but maybe one of you lucky readers will visit it some day and report back to say “it was delicious”.

Top Picks:


Woman selling tortillas in Oaxaca Market

I get it — I may have different tastes in food than you — but our personal favorites from this list were:

  • La Teca for it’s no-nonsense, classic food done well.
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  • Itanoni for the sheer variety and quality of tortillas and antojitos.
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  • Tlamanalli for it’s found-no-where else food and location — though spooky organ music playing in the background made for an unusual ambiance.
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  • Fonda Florecita because, what’s a gastronomic trip without that diner / street stall / awesome local spot in the market?

Use this list. Love it. And leave your favorite discoveries in the comments.