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Oaxaca Report (long)

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Oaxaca Report (long)

JackS | Jan 31, 2006 01:12 AM

I just returned from a trip to Oaxaca, and boy what a culinary joy that city is. Just wanted to spread the love with a report on the tasty stuff I was able to try.

The first night I was there, I went to Zendunga at the corner of Garcia Vigil and M. Bravo. I had the basic Oaxacan dish of chicken with mole negro. It was a good, solid mole, suitably complex with a hint of sweetness and a pleasing bitterness. The next morning, which was a Saturday, I went to a market set up near the Pochote theater at the corner of Garcia Vigil and V. Gomez Farias. The market is arranged on a food-court model, with a bunch of food vendors surrounding a seating area, allowing you to get food from several places and wat it at once. These places aren't labeled, so the best way for me to identify them is that they were facing east. From one, I got a great chile relleno - small, easy to cook in the small wok-type thing they set up there, a really tasty taco, and, from another vendor facing north, a sweet corn-cake-type thing.

That night, I experienced two delicious examples of Oaxacan street food: a taco truck and a tlayuda stand within a block of each other on Calle Libre on either side of Calle Murguia. They set up at about 9 pm and stay open till 4 am, which makes sense because this is perfect post-drinking food. We started with a lechon taco from the truck, which had that perfection-in-simplicity you get from tacos sometimes. The tlayudas topped the tacos, though. Tlayudas are a Oaxacan specialty, with a large tortilla roasted to a crisp with a host of toppings, like tasajo (thinly-cut beef), chorizo, black beans, cheese, and salsa. There was a weird formula for getting served; you had to ask one of the cooks for a number, order when you get called, and somehow find a waiter to pay after you finish (we ate outside, where it's more pleasant but more chaotic -- hard to explain unless you're there.) It was definitely better then a tlayuda I got at a take-out place on M. Bravo just west of the Alcala.

The next day, I checked out the Sunday market in a town called Tlacolula, a 45 minute bus ride from the 2nd-class bus station from Oaxaca. The Sunday market there is huge and full of good food, with big sections for bread, meat, and vegetables as well as non-food items and roving wheelbarrows full of honeycombs. We had tasty tlayudas in a spot I can't pinpoint (it's really huge there on Sundays) ... the best I can recommend is to chowhound and experiment in this market and you'll likely be pleasantly surprised.

Back in Oaxaca, we dined at Biche Pobre, at the corner of Calle de la Republica and Hidalgo. The best thing about this meal was the salsas they served with nacho chips at the outset of the meal; there was a creamy guacamole, a spicy chipotle, and your standard salsas verde and rojo. They overshadowed the meal, which consisted of decent chiles rellenos and a red mole, which were passable but not mind-blowing, as the standard was beginning to be set.

Another market in Oaxaca a couple of blocks south of the Zocalo (main town square) is the 20th of November market. For some reason, neither of our two guidebooks had much to say about this market even though it's pretty centrally located and about a bustling a place as I've ever seen -- and I live in New York City. When you walk into the market from the entrance in the middle of the block on Flores Magnon, you enter a steamy, smoky den of roasting meats and onions, with lots of vendors competing for your business by just yelling at passers-by. The first time we went, we sat down at a random table, and immediately had a waitress bring us styrofoam plates of guac, delightful pico de gallo (cut-up tomatoes and peppers in a vinegary mix which I optimistically killed any nasty microbes about in there), and radishes. Someone else brought us big plates of chorizo (that may have been a bit udnercooked, but I'm still alive now), grilled green onions, and tortillas, which made for nice makshift tacos. What I didn't realize was that each person bringing food to us worked for a different purveyor at this market, which caused a bit of embarassment when we thought we had already paid and got up to leave. Still good; the eateries you reach after walking through the gauntlet of steamy meat stands were better than the ones right near the entrance I mentioned earlier.

I went back to this market for some breakfast later and got a tamale with mole negro and hot chocolate with (boiled) water at a random stand inside the market I couldn't really identify; I'd recommend just wandering around in there and finding something that strikes your fancy out of the huge number of food stands they've got.

Got dinner at Casa de Mis Abuelas, the kind of place so tourist-oriented that chowhounds are usually suspicious of it, on the second floor of a building with a prime location on the south-central corner of the zocalo. Sure enough, the chicken with amarillo mole was uninspiring, but my chile relleno was flavorful and spicy.

The next tourist-type place we checked out was Restaurante Naranjo, which was a bit overrated -- it's the kind of seven-mole place in all the guidebooks. The salad was downright bad and the pork tenderloin in a red mole uninspired. However, a chipotle soup had a great texture and spicy flavor and the spreads that go with the bread were actually terrific (an odd thing to recommend a restaurant for, but garlic butter and creamy pate! Come on!)

We also got ice cream in a little place just to the south-west of the Santo Domingo church, with flavors like coconut and a "burnt milk" flavor that I liked a lot, but my wife didn't. Interesting ice cream was all over a plaza near the church of Soledad for some reason, with my favorite local flavor being mezcal ice cream (mezcal is a local alcohol brewed from the maguey plant, which tastes sort of halfway between tequila and smoky single-malt scotch).

I ate next at a restaurant on M. Bravo on the block just west of the Alcala - don't remember the name of it, but it specializes in organic corn dishes and you have to walk past a couple of doctor's offices to get in there. A particular favorite, especially of my wife's, was a dish whose name I can't remember, but it's described as a triangle, and it is a triangular tortilla wrap around organic fillings, most tastily a creamy cheese. A blue corn taco I got was good and healthy-feeling as well.

We still hadn't discovered the perfect tamale, though, and finally struck tamale gold with a stand called Mina at the corner of Hidalgo and Porfirio Diaz (a favorite on the New York boards is a Bangladeshi restaurant called Mina, so I guess that name has good karma). Three kinds of tamales they sold stood out: the mole negro tamale, the best mole negro I had on the trip, an amarillo tamale (yellow mole), and a rajas - spicy pepper -- tamales. The tamales were all light, fluffy, and moist, and the moles were subtle and spicy.

The person who suggested this stand was a waitress in a torta house on the next block on Hidalgo from the stand, where I got a Oaxacan torta, which was OK - the best part of it was a particularly piquant jalapeno, but the meat was a little on the gristly side.

On a quest for good hiking, we took another 2nd-class bus to Cuajimoloyas, a small town in the mountains. Right after you get off the bus near a tourist center and a small hotel, there's a small comedor where you can order food. We got a simple but tasty meal of potato patties ever so slightly flavored with salt, tortillas, and black beans along with a hot chocolate with water that tasted good. We were charged the gringo price, but it was still really cheap ($10 for three people).

We finally discovered the holy grail of Platonic tacos al pastor at Primo Taco, on Calle de la Republica where Hidalgo starts (kitty corner to Biche Pobre, mentioned earlier). The tacos al pastor were tasty, cut off a spit with a hunk of pineapple and the dressings that every good taco should have. Just get it.

Comida buena en Oaxaca. yum!

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