Two Weeks In Oaxaca: Mezcal, Mole, and Much More

5-18 August 2022

Sometimes it seems that the universe is pointing you to a place. Out of nowhere, the same destination comes up again and again in conversation, on social media, in articles you read or on shows that you watch. Last spring, Oaxaca came on my radar in a big way. Suddenly, it seemed that every travel blogger I followed was raving about Oaxaca, not to mention the fact that one of my good friends moved there for a few months. When it was featured on an episode of Somebody Feed Phil, my personal favorite food/travel show, I knew I was a goner. I had to get myself to Oaxaca. 

The vibrant Oaxacan neighborhood of Jalatlaco.

When people talk about Oaxaca, they might be referring to the state in southern Mexico famous for mezcal and mole, or they might be referring to Oaxaca de Juárez, aka Oaxaca City, the capital city of said state. Nestled in a valley amid lush hills and mountains with a population of around 300,000, this was my home base for two weeks in August 2022. Two weeks is much longer than most tourists would choose to stay in such a relatively small city. It was my first time in Mexico, so you’d think I might have chosen to hop around on some sort of grand tour, but I was doing some remote work as well as medical tourism to get a crown put on a tooth so a slower pace of travel was more suitable this time around. However, both the city itself and the surrounding area are so culturally rich that two weeks passed much more quickly than I’d expected!

If I were to sum up Oaxaca in three words, I’d say food, culture, and the outdoors. So that’s how I’m going to break it down over this and the next two posts. Since it was a food and travel show that sealed the deal for me to finally make it across the southern border, let’s start with everybody’s favorite topic: food. 

Mexican cuisine itself is a treasure, and has made it onto UNESCO’s list of the cultural heritage of humanity, and Oaxacan food is its own regional category. I was familiar with Mexican food of course, but I hadn’t tried much Oaxacan food, and I was eager to do so. After a very full day of travel, I finally arrived at my friend’s place in Oaxaca City around 9:00 pm via a colectivo (shared taxi) from what might be the tiniest airport I’ve ever been to. I was groggy, tired, and hungry – time to start experiencing some of that legendary food! Luckily, my friend knew what would be just the thing, and took me to her local tlayuda spot. Tlayudas are kind of like Oaxacan quesadillas, and consist of large, handmade tortillas with Oaxacan cheese, beans, and various other fillings. We topped ours with pickled onions, herbs, and salsas, and I had the best horchata (a sweet rice milk beverage with nuts and cinnamon) that I’ve ever had. Both the meal and the restaurant were simple and wholesome, a great start to my local food tour. 

The next day, in need of a quick bite after my three-hour long dentist appointment, we found ourselves at Mercado de la Merced, a colorful, vibrant indoor market up the street from where we were staying, for some memelas at the market’s food hall. Memelas are small cakes of masa that have been toasted or fried, like small tortillas, then loaded with beans, cheese and other toppings. We tried a bunch of different ones to share, including chicharrones (pork rinds), nopal (cactus), chicken, and huitlacoche, a black fungus that grows on corn and is a lot tastier than it sounds. This humble market memela stall was so fast, cheap, and delicious that I went back several times during my stay, and tried a different type of memela each time. 

Of course, one of my big goals for my time in Oaxaca City was to hit up some of the places that I’d seen featured on Somebody Feed Phil. I could go on and on about why I love this show so much. Watching a nebbishy middle-aged Jewish man eat his way around the world may not sound like much, and Phil Rosenthal certainly doesn’t have the rock star appeal of Anthony Bourdain. But this show just has so much heart. The key to the show’s appeal is the understanding that the food and the destinations are really about the people, the stories we tell, and the friends we make along the way. And it’s Netflix, so there’s lots of drool-worthy food shots! Naturally, I had to try to go to some of Phil’s picks while in Oaxaca, and I was lucky to make it to three. 

My first Phil selection, and the nicest meal of the entire trip, was Levadura de Olla. Looking around the candle-lit courtyard, the restaurant was definitely atmospheric, but it was the food that truly made it special. Led by chef and owner Thalía Barrios Garcia, the menu is divided not by appetizers and entrees, but by classic, celebratory, prehistoric, and reimagined Oaxacan dishes. It’s the perfect place to taste the past, present, and future of the gastronomy of the region. We shared a hearty bean and corn soup, a plate of red mole with pork and black mole with chicken, and the festive tomato plate, a rainbow of thinly sliced indigenous tomatoes dressed in a beet sauce, all accompanied by mezcalina cocktails, of course! I couldn’t have chosen a better spot for my first taste of mole in Oaxaca. The red mole was sweet and rich, the black full and complex, the meat was succulent and tender, and the grey and purple tortillas made from indigenous corn were the perfect vessels to scoop it up with. We both raved over the tomato plate, which my friend declared to be her favorite dish. I still can’t decide which was mine. 

If the best meal was to be had at Levadura de Olla, then the best drinking experience was certainly at Sabina Sabe, the next Phil spot on my list. This place checks all the boxes: funky decor, hip yet friendly and knowledgeable staff, and a killer soundtrack. The sweet bartender asked what I like so that she could give me recommendations, and I blurted out that I wanted whatever Phil had on the show – and she gave me just that! The cocktail that she created for me had a base of Ancho Reyes, an ancho chili liqueur, with citrus, club soda, and a tasty salt rim. I’d never had anything like it, and savored every drop. With our drinks, we nibbled a snack plate for the full Phil experience: cheese, chorizo, guacamole, chicharrones, and chapulines (cooked and seasoned grasshoppers, actually quite delicious). After the cocktails, we wanted to try some mezcal. Before my trip, I was a little familiar with mezcal, but still found myself overwhelmed by the incredible amount of varieties, so I just asked one of the other bartenders to pour me something that he really liked. He took down a bottle of sotol mezcal from the top shelf. It certainly tasted top shelf: smooth, smoky, with a curious aftertaste that lingered in your mouth and made you want more. 

Seriously, how cool is Sabina Sabe???

Despite all the food and beverage tourism I did in the area, one thing on my list that I didn’t get to was visit a mezcal distillery. Actually, that’s not quite true, I visited one as part of a tour but found it quite touristy and didn’t care too much for what they were pouring. Luckily though, there is plenty of good mezcal to be found without even leaving Oaxaca City. My friend and I both wanted to taste a bit and buy some bottles to take back with us, and on my second to last night in town we went on a mission to do just that. First, we went to Convite, a truly artisanal producer with a tasting room in the historic center, where I realized that I have truly expensive taste when I discovered that my favorite mezcal, the coyote, is also one of the more pricey ones because of how long it takes the agave plant to mature. I bought myself a tiny “mini bar” bottle of that one, and a regular-sized one of the “Escencial” blend as a gift. Next, we popped into Mis Mescales, a mezcal shop with a huge selection run by a very cool female proprietor, who let us taste to our hearts’ content before choosing and buying a few bottles each. We rounded off the night with cocktails at El Espacio, a groovy cocktail bar with great decor and an interesting menu, where I tried a mezcal-based drink garnished with a sprig of bougainvillea that the bartender had to harvest from the plant outside, followed by a whiskey-based drink with local corn whiskey and burnt copal. Clearly, the drinking scene in Oaxaca was as local, fun, and inventive as the dining scene. 

Really though, I didn’t have a bad meal for the entire two weeks I was there. Not even the cheap tamales and instant Nescafé at the bus station were terrible. And in this post I didn’t even talk about the countless adorable cafes that I frequented or the many cups of chocolate that I consumed. As it turns out, you can eat (and drink!) a lot in Oaxaca in two weeks. It’s the kind of place where the longer you are there, the more there is to discover. The same goes for sightseeing and learning about the local culture. Stay tuned. 

Safe and Happy Travels,

Mo

The perfect cup of Oaxacan chocolate.

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