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Night-time food stalls in Oaxaca


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Night-time food stalls in Oaxaca

RST | | Feb 22, 2006 10:02 PM

I am still kicking myself for not having posted the list of night-time street stalls in Puebla that I compiled on my last trip to that city in 2003. I had told myself back then that I would surely be back within a couple of months at the most-and that there would be time to tweak and add to the list. Surely, there must be yet another transcendent guajolote or molote just around the corner, or an unusual form of pelona the next block over, or THE definitive chileatole specialist that I had missed; and surely, I would not want to post a list too hastily and not have them on it...? The months passed...and turned into years...other great culinary cities beckoned...obscure new indigenous cuisines emerged on the horizon ("desert" cuisine of Queretaro and San Luis Potosi, foodways of the Lacandons, the revalorization of the cooking of the P'urepecha) forms of desire...and of course, I never did find the time-even on this recent trip which took me through Puebla-to give final form to my compilation.

I promised myself, then, to make sure to post the similar list I made for Oaxaca the moment I got back-without worrying about "perfecting". Consider this list a work-in-progress then; but take it also as a kind of challenge to the Cristinas, the Gaylas, the pitus out there, all those who follow the Mexican threads on the International Board avidly, as well as those from the many "generations" of posters on this board through the years who have travelled to Oaxaca and fallen in love with it. I hope that you slowly fill in the gaps...

The focus of the list is a very specific type of chowing: night-time food stalls that open for business, sometimes as early as nightfall, but more typically, from about 8 or 9 p.m. and staying open till the bars and clubs close at 4 a.m. Each city in Mexico-large and small-has its own night-time specialties-usually available only during those hours: a certain form of quesadilla in one city, cameteros in another. Often, these businesses would congregate in obvious public places like central squares (zocalos) or in front of the main cathedral. But just as frequently, these stalls could be found only by exploring side streets, where a certain family might be found (working on additonal income by) preparing delicacies with braziers, a few comales or frying vats, chairs set right outside their main door. Such places are usually only known by word-of-mouth. Ask any resident of-say-Puebla or Oaxaca, and you will find him rattling off on favorite stalls in different neighborhoods (colonias).

In the city of Oaxaca, the king of night-time chowing is the tlayuda (also: clayuda), which I have described many times before in posts on both the Chicago Board and the International Board. Certainly, one can find tlayudas by day-if one insists-perhaps in one of the comedores at the market, where the ladies would love to oblige by attempting something passable (often on a flat-top grill) as tlayuda. But true tlayuda is classically prepared over an open fire on a street side, under the stars. (Memelas, on the contrary, are early-morning food: I would love to start a list of memela stalls the next time I visit.)

One of the places I recommended on an earlier post, Las Reliquias, at Morelos 402, is still in business (although they chose not to open the first night-a Sunday-I returned) and it still makes perhaps my favorite version of them all. Instead of setting up outside the main gate, the business is actually operated right in the courtyard (charming, obviously lived-in, TV blaring in the corner etc). The hours of operation are the shortest of those on this list-running only from 8 to 11 p.m. at night.

At Las Casas, going west from Flores Magon, there are three tlayuda stands in a row that start operating at about 6 or 7. These stalls are quite well-known throughout the city, specially because, in addition to the usual tasajo, cecina (cecina always refers to pork in Oaxaca) and chorizo, they also offer tlayudas with patas de cuche (pickled pig's feet). Both quesillo and queso fresco are used to stuff these tlayudas. I had both a fiery salsa verde and thin guacamole drizzled over mine. The asiento/black bean paste in the first stall of the three is remarkably rich and fragrant: a specially decadent treat!

Also quite well known are the so-called "tlayudas de Libre", referring to calle Libre, the street that runs n-s on the east side of city center. There are actually two stalls side by side on this street between Murguia and Morelos, one called Tlayudas Libre and the other Dona Marta. These are really storefronts since the main seating area is inside (lots of tables and chairs, plus coolers with pop) although the grilling and the cooking is done outside (and of course, there are benches and chairs by the grill, in case you wish to enjoy your tlayuda in the open air). These are the only places where the tlayudas (i.e. the tortilla) as well as the meat are thrown right on the coals instead of being set over a grill. When I got my plate, I was surprised to see the tasajo, not inside, but on top of the floded tlayuda. When I asked the lady who prepared the tlayuda what I was supposed to do (put the meat inside?), she said, una mordida de carne, una mordida de tortilla. Considering the specially rich and overstuffed tlayudas here, this format makes sense as otherwise the meat would be overwhelmed if simply sandwiched in with everything else.

At Bustamante and Mina, going a bit farther away now southwards from the zocalo is a terrific stall, really just a grill and tables set up right on the curb. It was mobbed when I got there one night at midnight. The claim to fame here is their tlayudas stuffed with flor de calabaza. The red salsa, also quite uniquely, is made with jalapenos. Although they are supposed to be open till the wee hours, I would try to visit by 11 or so as the client after us, not only did not get any flor de calabaza, but the stall had also run out of "tlayudas" and so had to offer them a replacement with "blandas" (blandas are the softer tortillas; tlayudas, also dinner plate sized, are hard and leatherey turning brittle with toasting).

Going south, on the stretch of the Periferico just north of Abastos Market (and this survey only includes places within the limits of city center within the ring roads-Periferico and Calzada de Ninos Heroes; the outlying colonias is another project) right by a little trysting place (by night) called Parque del amor is another excellent tlayuda stall, which makes a version drizzled inside with a lovely salsa made with chile de arbol.

On the opposite end of town, on the NE corner of city center, at Constitucion, near where it crosses the charming little cobbled street called Tacubaya and the Calzada de la Republica, is a place called El Chepil. I was really tlayuda-ed out by the time I got to try this place and frankly, I remember very little about it and I think that it would be best for another poster in the future to post on it.

Of non-tlayuda night-time stalls, we should mention a cart parked just north of the "tlayudas of Libre" specializing in delicious tacos de lechon. On Flores Magon, on the SE corner of Juarez Market, there are a couple of taco stands, one specializing in carnitas. While hounding by night on Fiallo, I stumbled on a little residence (a little driveway, benches set outside the gate) offering molotes. But alas, they were closing when I got there.

On Sunday nights, and on Sunday nights ONLY, from about 6 or 7 p.m. onwards, right outside the Iglesia de San Jose (which is the church high on the hill opposite the Basilica de la Soledad), one could find some of the most glorious streetfood in all Oaxaca. Three (or four?) ladies, all apparently working for the benefit of the church, set up a few tables here to offer extraordinary molotes (fried stuffed masa "torpedoes") and what they call "quesadillas", half-moon shaped masa cakes, fairly thickly formed, stuffed with quesillo pulled into strings (hebras), fried and then topped with a rich and unctuous black bean paste, a tiny bit of lettuce, cheese and salsa. They also offer excellent pozole!

Finally, we cannot leave any discussion of street food in Oaxaca without mentioning perhaps the Queen of them all, Senora Socorro Vega, who has been operating a little cart for over 17 yrs right in the tourist heart of Oaxaca at the corner of Alcala and Matamoros. Her business is not strictly a night-time business since she is open by 10 in the morning (her daughter takes over while she rests); but I could simply not exclude her from this list since she is at that corner till 9 or 10 at night. After all these years, it is quite remarkable that her little cart is still at risk of being closed down by the "municipio" which has been slowly trying in recent years to abolish any kind of street food business in the city center. Senora Vega specializes in preserved fruits, the ambulatory version of a type of artisanal specialist that could be found in each of the markets of Oaxaca (La Merced, La Noria, Sanchez Pascuas: cf stall #50/51 Postres regionales/frutas en vinagre "Tolita"). Senora Vega offers preserved higos (figs), ciruelas en licor, platanos (red plantains: these are fantastic!), coyules, jocote, mango en dulce con chile de arbol, manzana (tiny apples),
nanches; well as mangoes, jicama, potato in vinegar. She makes what is perhaps the definitive version of that extraordinary Oaxacan sweet called garbanzos y arroz con leche: this is really one of the must-trys for this city. She also makes an incomparable version of another Oaxacan specialty called "piedrazo", which is a section of a hard, dry bread (called pan para piedrazo; available at specialists in Abastos etc) with the texture of biscotti, dunked into pickling juice of fruity/fragrant pineapple vinegar and then topped with the pickles of carrots, onions, potatoes. All of this is served in a little plastic bag and meant to be eaten right on the street. It is another one of the most heavenly things that you could possibly put in your mouth in this city!